BY SETH BLOMELEY – via Arkansas Democrat Gazette

A fear of coming forward by people with AIDS in the Arkansas Delta will make it more difficult for the state to help them, a researcher said Monday.

Katharine E. Stewart of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences’ College of Public Health told the Arkansas HIV / AIDS Minority Task Force during its meeting at the Capitol that among blacks in the Delta there is a “stigma” associated with people who have AIDS.

Stewart also said that the task force needs to think about what recommendation it might make regarding sex education. She said children sometimes think and talk about sex as early as the second grade, and it’s important for parents or teachers to get them good information before they get bad information from their peers.

For instance, she said, she taught a human sexuality class for 13 years and she recalls three times when female students approached her and said they didn’t have to worry about getting sexually transmitted diseases because they only have anal sex. The students said they were taught that anal sex isn’t really sex because you can’t conceive a baby through it and because of that they didn’t think condoms were necessary.

Stewart said that’s wrong, and it illustrates the problems in a modern society where good information is readily available but people don’t want to talk about it because it makes them uncomfortable.

The task force was created by Act 842 of 2007 by Rep. Willie Hardy, D-Camden. The task force is developing recommendations for Gov. Mike Beebe by Nov. 1. Its next public forum will be in West Memphis on Sept. 22.

Stewart said STDs and HIV are disproportionately high among blacks.

To illustrate this, she said that Lee and St. Francis counties, which have a high percentage of black residents, have gonorrhea rates about twice the statewide average of 168 cases per 100, 000 people.

Throughout Arkansas, she said, the rate of HIV among blacks is five times greater than among whites.

People with AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases often are drug users who don’t use condoms and are low-income, she said.

Sometimes, poverty-stricken women trade sex for money to feed their families and are in no financial position to demand that partners wear condoms, Stewart said.

Furthermore, people in Lee and St. Francis counties lack access to medical care, she said.

Stewart said she’s studying how best to intervene with and educate rural blacks who refuse to use condoms and who believe they aren’t at risk of contacting HIV. She said it’s important to get community members involved because of a stigma attached to the disease.