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AIDS Spurs Emergency Declaration in Oakland

Health: High infection rate among blacks prompts Alameda County to take the action, aimed at gaining new U.S. funds.


OAKLAND — Alameda County declared a local state of emergency Thursday because of the high incidence of HIV/AIDS infection among African Americans, hoping to place the region at the head of the line for new federal funding aimed at staunching the epidemic.

Saying the county is the first in the nation to take such action, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the declaration, which includes a plan--but no local money--to increase awareness of the disease among blacks and to apply for state and federal funding.

Dr. Arthur Chen, county health officer, recited a litany of alarming statistics in asking for the state of emergency, noting that the AIDS rate among blacks in the county is five times that of whites and Latinos and that intravenous drug use is a major cause of the disease, particularly among women.

Although the AIDS rate overall has fallen, the discrepancy between whites and blacks with the disease cannot be ignored, Chen told the board. "I urge you not to be lulled into thinking our work is done," he said.

The AIDS rate for blacks in Alameda County--85.4 cases per 100,000 residents--is slightly higher than the rate nationally--83.4 cases per 100,000, according to county and federal officials.

Interestingly though, the disparity between blacks and whites with AIDS is smaller in Alameda County than it is nationwide, because the AIDS rate among whites is higher in the county than in other areas. The U.S. AIDS rate among whites is 10.4 cases per 100,000, compared with 17.8 in Alameda County.

Nationally, the AIDS rate among blacks is eight times that of whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Local officials said Thursday that they are hard-pressed to cope with the epidemic because they have recently lost $900,000 in federal grants for prevention and education programs aimed at African Americans.

Chen said four out of 10 males and six out of 10 females with AIDS in the county are African American.

Blacks constitute 18% of residents of Alameda County, which has the state's second largest black population after Los Angeles County, according to a report by the State of Emergency Task Force of Alameda County.

The report also found that blacks in the county are more likely to live below the poverty line, to drop out of school, to be unemployed, to live in single-parent homes or be homeless than people from other ethnic or racial groups. "They are also more likely to develop critical and chronic health problems and less likely to receive care than persons from other ethnic/racial groups," the report said.

Local officials and activists all talked about the need to tap into $156 million in federal funds announced last week by the Clinton administration to better combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic among minorities. The Congressional Black Caucus persuaded the government to create the funding.

Although that money "is not nearly enough to end this health crisis," Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) told the Alameda County board Thursday, "it is a beginning. . . . We will do everything in our collective power to get the resources we need to end the epidemic in our community. Without swift and forceful action, this crisis threatens to ravish the African American community nationally."

Federal officials do not keep county-by-county AIDS statistics, so it is difficult to judge how severe Alameda County's problems are compared with other parts of the nation or the state.

"The problem of HIV and AIDS among African Americans is not uniform across the state," said Richard Sun, HIV/AIDS director for the state Department of Health Services. "Alameda County is particularly hard hit in this area."

Declaring a state of emergency, he said, has uncertain consequences beyond "bringing attention to the problem and helping to mobilize people to get things done."

Damon Thompson, a spokesman for the Office of Public Health and Science at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said he has not heard of any county "declaring a state of emergency and coming to us. I would be hesitant to say what effect it would have."

Times staff writer Mary Curtius contributed to this story.

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