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Baltimore marks World AIDS Day

Imploring residents to "talk, test and treat," local and state leaders and health officials gathered in the city Wednesday to mark World AIDS Day, remember past victims of HIV/AIDS and honor those living with the disease.

The event, held at the Central Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, featured song, dance and poetry interspersed with the presentation of statistics: For instance, about 30,000 Marylanders are living with HIV/AIDS and are aware of it, and an additional 6,000-9,000 are unaware that they are HIV-positive.

Health officials hope an infusion of funds in recent months from the federal government will help agencies reassess and expand their HIV/AIDS prevention and outreach efforts in the Baltimore area.

The Baltimore-Towson metropolitan area had the fourth-highest rate of reported AIDS cases in the nation in 2008, the most recent year for which numbers are available, with more than 32 cases per 100,000 people, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"Especially in Baltimore City, HIV/AIDS afflicts people from all walks of life," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at Wednesday's event.

Still, certain populations are hit especially hard by the disease. African-Americans, for example, made up over 80 percent of HIV diagnoses in the Baltimore metropolitan area in 2008, according to the state health department.

Heather L. Hauck, the director of the state's Infectious Disease and Environmental Health Administration, said the department is focused on encouraging routine testing for HIV/AIDS at all health facilities, including both public and private hospitals and doctors' offices.

"Given the disease burden in the state of Maryland, all providers should be offering testing on at least an annual basis," Hauck said.

On the state and local level, several grants given this summer and fall are helping agencies reassess and expand their prevention and outreach efforts in the Baltimore area.

The state health department received about $870,000 at the end of September from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hauck said, and is charged with using the money to determine what HIV prevention strategies would be most cost-effective and optimal for the Baltimore metropolitan area.

Hauck said that while the CDC-funded evaluation will probably not result in a drastic change in the state's prevention efforts, "it may cause us to re-prioritize some interventions so we have a more immediate impact on reducing new infections," she said.

Depending on the CDC's own budget, the state may receive more money next year to implement the most effective interventions, Hauck said.

And the Baltimore City Health Department received federal funds through the Associated Black Charities in August to fund a new youth outreach worker, said department spokesman Brian Schleter.

Last week, the city health department held a "Know Your Status" social event at the Sheraton Hotel for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, Schleter said. Of the approximately 400 to 500 people who attended, Schleter said, 116 were tested for HIV.

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