City targets risky sex among teens

The Baltimore Sun

Facing one of the nation's worst AIDS epidemics, city officials unveiled yesterday Baltimore's first high-profile media campaign aimed at preventing risky sex among teenagers and young adults.

The message, "Spread the word, not the disease," should be appearing this summer in print, radio and television advertisements as well as on wristbands and bus shelters. One commercial radio station began airing the message yesterday.

Mayor Sheila Dixon and health officials yesterday discussed the frank nature of the campaign, which promotes abstinence but also condom use among youth who have sex.

"We need to be straight, not sugarcoat, and be very upfront with youth," she said.

Dixon said that is what is needed in a U.S. metropolitan area that had the second-highest rate of new AIDS diagnoses in 2005, according to a report published last year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only Miami had recorded more AIDS cases proportional to its population for the period, the latest for which figures are available.

The campaign was developed by the nonprofit After School Institute and the 21st Century Group advertising firm, both in Baltimore. The two worked under a contract that provided $75,000 in city funds and $60,000 in federal funds disbursed by the Maryland AIDS Administration.

Teenagers featured in the television ads were recruited from Womb Work Productions Inc., a nonprofit theater company that addresses social problems faced by urban youth. Some experienced AIDS in their families and neighborhoods.

"I want to get the word out any way I can because I know what it feels like to have someone close to you die of the disease," said Nadria Jennings, 18, a graduate of Dr. Samuel L. Banks High School who now attends Virginia Commonwealth University.

Broadcast ads were due to run yesterday on 92Q, a commercial radio station, and on TV 25, the city government's public access station. Print ads are being placed in university newspapers.

Meanwhile, the After School Institute is seeking corporate sponsorships to purchase time on commercial television and in newspapers, said Rebkha Atnafou, the group's director.

The nonprofit organization has launched a Web site ( and has printed T-shirts and wristbands that will be distributed at summer pool parties.

Next year, the After School Institute and radio station plan to make presentations at every city high school, Atnafou said.

In 2005, the Baltimore metropolitan area reported 40.4 new AIDS cases per 100,000 people, only slightly lower than Miami's, which was 44.9 cases per 100,000.

City Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein said 3 percent of new HIV infections -- which cause AIDS -- occur among residents under 20, while a fifth occur among people 20 to 29 years old.

He said the messages target the age group in which sexual habits take root.

"It's the time of your life when you're fearless," he said.

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