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Arkansas HIV/AIDS Task Force Examines Ways to Encourage HIV-Positive People to Attend Public Forums, Provide Testimony

June 12, 2008

The Arkansas HIV/AIDS Minority Task Force on Monday examined ways to encourage HIV-positive people to attend three upcoming public forums and provide anonymous testimony, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports (Frago, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 6/10).

The 19-member task force was formed in January by Gov. Mike Beebe (R) to examine HIV/AIDS among the state's minority populations and ways to strengthen HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment among blacks, Hispanics and other minorities in the state. The task force will hold a series of meetings in the state's four congressional districts to hear public comment on the issue, as well as to discuss HIV/AIDS incidence among minorities and the efficacy of current programs. The committee will be responsible for submitting a report of its findings and recommendations to Beebe, leadership in the state House and Senate, and Arkansas' Department of Health by Nov. 1 (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 1/23).

Although the forums are public and open to the media, HIV-positive people who want to testify should have a "conducive atmosphere that is not threatening," Michelle Smith of Jefferson Comprehensive Care Systems said. In an effort to preserve anonymity, digital audio recordings rather than videotapes will be made at the forums, according to the Democrat-Gazette.

Katharine Stewart of the Fay Boozman College of Public Health at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences said that allowing HIV-positive people to use false names or not requiring them to give their names at all when providing testimony would meet the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act and allow people to preserve anonymity. Stewart added that it is critical for the task force to hear testimony from people living with HIV/AIDS. "The public forum can be a time when we hear about [HIV-positive individuals'] concerns."

About 45 people attended the task force's first meeting, which was held last week at Philander Smith College in Little Rock. Rick Collins, task force chair and co-executive director of the not-for-profit group Future Builders, said the task force "needed more people" at last week's meeting. The task force has invited state legislators to its upcoming meetings, the first of which is scheduled for July 17, and has asked Beebe to issue a statement encouraging people to attend the forums. In addition to the July 17 forum, two other forums are scheduled for Aug. 21 and Sept. 22.

Blacks accounted for 51% of the 341 new HIV cases recorded in the state in 2006, despite making up only 15.6% of the state's population, according to a report delivered to the task force by Patricia Minor of the Arkansas Minority Health Commission. According to the health department, whites accounted for two-thirds of all AIDS cases in the state from 1983 to 1998, but similar numbers of blacks and whites have been diagnosed with the disease since 1999 (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 6/10).

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