Longform

New Life

Page 3 of 12

As people with HIV began to lead longer and healthier lives, many in the public confused the virus-stemming drugs with a cure. Magic Johnson's situation exemplifies this confusion: On November 7, 1991, Johnson announced that he had HIV; ten years later, he still appears to be the same picture of health that he was when he played for the Los Angeles Lakers.

The result in some cases was that the number of newly infected gay men began to rise again. In Colorado, for example, the number of HIV and AIDS diagnoses increased by 6 percent between 1999 and 2000, reports the CDPHE. (There are now between 650,000 and 900,000 people living with the disease in the United States and roughly 13,000 people living with HIV or AIDS in this state.)

These latest numbers lead people like CAP director Maloney to conclude that medical advances are causing young people, in particular, to become complacent. "A lot of teens think AIDS is just another sexually transmitted disease, and that if you take a drug cocktail, you'll be fine," she says. "AIDS is older than them, so they were too young to see all the people dying from the disease."

And even though the drugs are helping many people live longer, they don't work for everyone. The medications are hard on the kidneys and liver, so people with drinking problems often can't tolerate them. Others experience side effects such as nausea and diarrhea so severely that they can't leave their homes. Furthermore, recent studies show that more people are becoming infected with strains of the virus that are resistant to medication. Fourteen percent of HIV-infected people in the United States and Canada between 1999 and 2000 had strains that didn't respond to one or more of the current drugs compared to 3.5 percent between 1995 and 1998.

Recent numbers showed something else as well.

Between 1982 and 1990, black people accounted for only 8 percent of those presumed to have been infected with AIDS in Colorado; of the HIV cases tracked by the CDPHE between 1995 and 2000, black people accounted for 17 percent. In the Latino population, the number has also increased -- from 10 percent between 1982 and 1990 to 19 percent between 1995 and 2000. The number of women living with the disease has likewise increased; in 1999, women accounted for 9 percent of Colorado HIV and AIDS cases, up from 6 percent in 1990 and 3 percent in 1985.

Not only are the demographics changing, but so is the number of infected people with more than just health problems. In 1997, 44 percent of CAP's new clients were homeless or had chronic mental illnesses or drug or alcohol addictions; so far this year, CAP reports that 69 percent of new clients are suffering from those problems. But while AIDS organizations in the rest of the country have been experiencing similar trends, both in the rise of black and Latino clients and in the number of clients with needs ranging beyond HIV, Denver is behind other major cities.

"Denver tends to be three to five years out on the curve in changes in the epidemic, and it has been for the last twenty years," says Terence Shea, president of CAP's board of directors. "As these issues come up in Atlanta and Los Angeles and Miami but don't show up here, we get a false sense of security that Denver isn't going to follow the trend -- and then five years later, we follow the trend. That hinders our ability to get the message out."

Those changes, combined with the fact that people who have the disease are now living longer, has put a huge financial strain on CAP, which has had to transition from being an agency focused on helping people live out the remainder of their lives in comfort and die with dignity to one focused on helping people become self-sufficient so that they can live not only with HIV or AIDS, but with all of the other problems they face.

The Turmoil

The organization's emphasis on reaching out to these new populations has caused a lot of strife within CAP -- and within the gay community that helped build the nonprofit.

Two years ago, the organization made a concerted effort to make sure that straight men, young men, women, Latinos and blacks would feel comfortable with its services. As CAP explained in its 1999 annual report, it saw its client base "increasingly diversify in 1999. A growing number of adolescents, women, heterosexuals and people of color became infected. CAP decided it was time for action."

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon

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