November 12, 2002
HIV is thriving in Hampton Roads -- spreading fastest among the poor, and afflicting blacks more than any other group. New HIV infections grew by 27 percent to 335 additional cases a year in the Norfolk metropolitan area during 1998-2001. New AIDS cases increased 30 percent during 1999-2001. New infections among whites fell by 14 percent during 1995-2001, yet rose 12 percent among blacks, according to July's report by Planning Council Inc., a Norfolk group providing support for human services agencies.
Experts and outreach workers say no one factor is to blame: Hampton Roads has long had among the nation's highest rates of gonorrhea and syphilis, which can increase susceptibility to HIV by two to five times. Half of babies born in Norfolk and Portsmouth are born to unmarried parents, suggesting many people are not practicing safe sex. Nearly 17 percent of HIV patients in eastern Virginia were infected through injection drug use. In some neighborhoods, more than 70 percent of residents live below the poverty line. Sixty percent of Virginia's prostitution arrests last year were in the seven cities of greater Hampton Roads. Most of all, experts say, HIV is spreading because people are ignoring the problem.
Blacks account for 72 percent of eastern Virginia's 5,447 HIV cases, and 65 percent of the 4,500 AIDS patients, according to the state Department of Health. In Western Tidewater, the health district including Suffolk, blacks represent 87 percent of HIV patients. Blacks constitute 32 percent of Hampton Roads' population. No group is harder hit than gay black men -- one of three gay minority men in Norfolk is HIV-positive. The number of poor HIV-positive patients served by Chesapeake Public Health Department has increased 17 percent in the past year, said its director, Dr. Nancy Welch. Still, as many as 900 of eastern Virginia's HIV-positive are not getting health care, according to PCI.