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Rural Communities See Fastest Growth In Aids Cases

AIDS is no longer just a bigcity problem.

For the first time, new cases of AIDS in Washington are increasing faster in smaller, rural communities than they are in the Seattle-King County area, according to the annual report of the Governor’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.

The report, released Monday at a news conference, also said now is not the time to slash funding for AIDS education and prevention programs.

“We know that AIDS has been crossing the country and around the world, and now we’re saying it’s crossing the county boundaries within the state of Washington at an increasing rate,” said the Rev. Bob Fitzgerald, council chairman.

“If you live in a small town in Washington state and you think you are immune from AIDS and thus you can get away with some risky behavior, you can’t do it, so don’t do it,” said council member Tim Hillard. “To the extent that message has been successful (in King County), it has taken money.”

The majority of AIDS cases are still found in King County, the state’s most populous. But the council found that a “second wave” is now hitting Washington’s more rural communities.

Ten years ago, in the early years of the epidemic, one in four AIDS cases came from outside King County. Today, that number is one in three and rising, Fitzgerald said.

The council put a human face on the statistics by introducing a Kitsap County man who told of his difficulty in finding AIDS treatment and support services in his community.

“I’m in a battle for my life and sometimes I feel like I’m there by myself,” said Jerry Hebert of Poulsbo. “I live far enough away from services that transportation to and from is a problem. When I have mornings when I can’t even get out of bed and make it to my refrigerator, getting into Seattle for medical services because they’re not available in my county is a real issue.”

Hillard, a former veteran television journalist who has AIDS, said many of the new AIDS cases in rural counties are actually “old exposures.”

“In most cases these are people who contracted AIDS as many as 10 years ago before a lot of prevention work was out there,” he said.

He said another 15,000 to 20,000 people in Washington have tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, but haven’t yet developed the disease.

“And they don’t just live in King County, either,” Hillard said. “They live in Skamania, in Kitsap, in Skagit, in Okanogan, in Pend Oreille, in Ferry, in Walla Walla - in places where people probably don’t imagine they would have AIDS cases. But they are there and they are growing.”

In the past year, 911 new cases of AIDS nearly three a day - were reported in Washington. An average of two people die each day in the state from AIDS-related illnesses, the council found.

Hillard said only two counties - Garfield and Wahkiakum - have not reported any AIDS cases.

Council members warned against moves to cut AIDS dollars on the state and federal levels. They urged the Legislature to oppose any overhaul of health-care reform that would scale back the Uniform Benefits Package and reduce preventive services to people with HIV/AIDS.