A quarter-century or so after the first cases of AIDS showed up in Middle Georgia, some people here are still in the dark when it comes to how widespread the disease is.
Even now, some think it only affects gay men, that it isn’t common in these parts, that it’s a big-city problem.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say, ‘I’m glad I live in the South and not California,’ ” said Dr. Harold Katner, one of the country’s foremost experts on HIV and AIDS, who practices in Macon. “The truth is there are more cases (per capita) in the South than there are in California. It’s a perception, and it’s an ignorance issue.”
Katner, who treated some of the area’s earliest known cases in the mid-1980s, recalls seeing his first AIDS patient at a hospital here. The patient was a gay man who’d recently married a woman thinking it would “cure” his homosexuality.
By 1987, Katner had 100 or so AIDS patients in his care, “ministers ... as well as prostitutes,” he said.
Since then, the number of new AIDS cases statewide have gradually declined, from just more than 2,000 diagnoses a year in 1992 to about half that many today. Hospital stays for patients, thanks to better drugs and other advances, have also been trimmed.
“We used to have almost an entire floor full of people with HIV complications,” Katner said. “Now we may have one or two patients at a time.”
For much of the past decade, at the Hope Center -- a west Macon clinic where Katner and others currently treat 900 or so patients from Bibb and 12 surrounding counties -- doctors report diagnosing, on average, one new case of HIV every three days.
Katner says that even with all that is known about HIV and AIDS, contributing factors as to why rural areas have some of the highest infection rates include: poverty, social stigmas, mental illness and an aversion some have to get tested for the disease.
“We’re still (diagnosing) people late in their disease because they haven’t been tested,” Katner said.
Asked if living in small-town Georgia and being poor make it difficult for someone diagnosed with HIV -- the virus that can lead to AIDS -- to be a medical success story, Katner said no.
“I’ve met Magic Johnson three times, and the medicines he was on the times I met him, I have many patients on those same drugs,” Katner said. “Now it might be harder for me to get certain drugs for some of the patients on Medicaid right away.”
Johnny Fambro, a local activist who over the past few decades has been a fixture on the area’s HIV/AIDS front, said, “People can survive this thing if we can keep the drugs coming, keep the care coming. One of the doctors at the Hope Center told me one day that right now, if he had to make a choice between becoming a diabetic and getting HIV that he would choose HIV.”
Even so, Fambro, a diabetic himself, said, “I am still terrified of HIV because I know it’s a virus that’s capable of taking out populations.”
He thinks teaching people how to keep themselves from becoming infected is key.
“HIV is becoming another disease of the poor,” Fambro said.
He tries to spread the word that you can’t catch it through casual contact and stresses the importance of being tested, and that if you do contract it that doesn’t mean life’s over.
“It’s become a chronic illness, not necessarily a death sentence,” Fambro said. “But you’ve got to put down your crack cocaine. Don’t do your meth with your meds.”
To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.