Doctors say although AIDS threat low in Natchez, statistics hit close to home

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 16, 2000

Dr. Robert Barnes knows most teenagers don’t always think about the consequences of their actions.

&uot;When you’re 14, 15 years old, you don’t think you’ll ever die,&uot; Barnes said. &uot;But they’re the ones most at risk.&uot;

The risk, Barnes said, is that teenagers will contract HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

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Like many people, Barnes was astonished by statistics released at last week’s 13th International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa. Among the predictions: The populations of some AIDS-stricken African countries will soon begin to fall as millions die of the disease, and by 2010 life expectancy will plunge to around 30.

But Barnes, who has seen the disease kill patients in Natchez said, the threat, while not as great, still hits close to home.

&uot;I encountered it before we knew what it was,&uot; said Barnes, describing patients 20 years ago who suffered a wide range of problems with no known diagnosis. &uot;We had no idea what was going on.&uot;

Craig Thompson, director of the AIDS division of the Mississippi Department of Health, said Adams County has had 99 reported cases of AIDS&160;and HIV since the health department began keeping statistics in the 1980s.

Mississippi has seen 8,407 cases, he said.

In 1999, Thompson said, the state saw a slight decrease in the number of AIDS cases, which Thompson attributed in part to triple combination drugs and prevention education.

Natchez family practice physician David Hall agreed the AIDS crisis is not limited to Africa. &uot;In all of our practices we have people with HIV,&uot; said Hall, referring to the partners in his practice. &uot;A lot of it’s out there. In a big city you see it even more. It’s everywhere.&uot;

Drug treatments have developed that can prolong AIDS patients’ survival.

But in Africa, Barnes said, even drugs can’t save the rising population of AIDS victims because people simply can’t afford them or get access to them.

&uot;There’s no money at all and no treatment,&uot; Barnes said.

Barnes, who has taken mission trips to South Africa but never worked with AIDS&160;patients there, said he once considered retiring to that country.

But one of the problems he encountered was the severe spread of AIDS – even in the professional community. Many companies found they could not keep young, talented employees because the disease is so widespread, Barnes said. And paying for the health costs of the disease is almost impossible, he said.

Barnes and Hall said education is the key to getting the disease under control.

&uot;Education is the only way,&uot; Barnes said. &uot;The drugs are wonderful, but education is the key.&uot;

Hall said he does not think enough education about prevention of the disease is available – especially to young people.

&uot;Kids are the ones we really need to reach,&uot; he said.