Light turnout concerns AIDS activists Decline in AIDSWALK participants, pledges points to complacency


With deaths from AIDS dropping by more than 40 percent in Maryland and across the nation, Baltimore's AIDSWALK attracted only one-fifth the number of last year's participants and saw pledges fall significantly, according to organizers, who fear the public may be becoming complacent about the disease.

The 11th annual walk, which returned to its roots at the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus, drew only about 2,000 people yesterday.

"I anticipated looking out from the stage and seeing a swarm of people in [Garland] field and no grass," said Lenora Davis, board president for HERO (Health Education Resource Organization), which sponsors the walk. "Instead I saw a lot of green. It's quite a drop."

Despite the low turnout, the 3.2-mile walk raised about $200,000 in private and corporate pledges for AIDS research, education and services, according to preliminary figures reported by Davis.

Last year -- when the event was held at Memorial Stadium -- HERO reported 10,000 walkers and $385,000 in pledges.

Davis said several factors might have been responsible for the light turnout, including inadequate advertising and competing fund-raisers this weekend for Associated Black Charities and Associated Jewish Charities.

But the main reason, she and colleagues are theorizing, could ironically be the progress that researchers are making against the disease.

"Some people think that AIDS isn't a sexy cause anymore because people are so much healthier with new medications," she said. "Even though there's no cure, the squeaky wheel still gets the grease. I think we should survey people to find out why they're not coming out like they used to."

Deaths in Maryland from acquired immune deficiency syndrome dropped 48 percent last year from 1996, a decrease from 1,182 victims to 611. Those figures are on track with a national decline heralding the promise of the triple-drug "cocktails" introduced two years ago.

Deaths from AIDS across the United States dropped 44 percent in the first six months of 1997 when compared with the same period in 1996. The figures were released this year by the Maryland AIDS Administration and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

"People with AIDS are living longer with the new medications, and my sense is that others, including members of the gay and lesbian community, are not feeling the same urgency" to fight the disease, said Joseph Anastasio, vice president of the HERO board. "This hasn't happened overnight, and I'm not just talking about AIDSWALK but interest in volunteering, giving money and raising money.

"Yet people with the disease still have emotional and financial needs."

HERO, which has headquarters on Read Street downtown, operates on an annual budget of $2.5 million, most of it from grants. Davis said the nonprofit organization employs a dozen case managers, who handle 100 or so cases each. People might be living longer with AIDS, she said, but that doesn't diminish the care they need.

And the trend of fewer deaths could change over the next few years as patients who fail to respond to the drugs eventually succumb. Now, 20 percent to 30 percent of AIDS patients either do not benefit or stop responding to drug therapy, doctors find.

Leonardo R. Ortega, HERO's executive director, said the workplace is one of the new challenges in AIDS education now that people with the syndrome are living longer.

"We have to educate workers to welcome disabled people back on the job," Ortega said. "People living with AIDS want to be productive. This is not over, and until it is we'll have walks and more walks."

"I think there still needs to be one, but it's not going to raise the profile of the problem the way it did 10 years ago," said Jim White, a former officer of Baltimore's Gay and Lesbian Community Center.

A participant in each of the city's 11 walks, White attended a memorial service Saturday night for a friend who died of AIDS.

"Like any political action, the AIDS campaign has grown up," he said. "It's not so much in the streets anymore, but people are still personally active. And others are getting complacent. Some feel it's a manageable disease now, and, thankfully, the numbers aren't as high as they were, but people are still dying."

Pub Date: 6/08/98

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