By Todd Wels

Triplicate staff writer

Many people in Del Norte County are dangerously uninformed about the AIDS virus, which could lead to an increasing number of cases here.

That is the conclusion drawn by county health educators which is why they have applied for and received an $81,000 grant from the California Department of Health Services for AIDS education.

The grant funding will be used to supplement the County Department of Health and Social Services existing educational services, and to create new outreach programs for high risk groups within the community.

According to the California Department of Health Services Office of AIDS, there were a total 22 documented cases of AIDS in Del Norte County between 1981 and July 31, 2000. According to County Health Educator Jack Miller, 11 of those people have died.

There are probably a lot more who are HIV positive and they dont even know it, said fellow Health Educator Marinda Miller. HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is the precursor to full-blown AIDS.

Worse still, the health department believes those numbers may be rising.

According to Jack Miller, rates of other sexually transmitted diseases have increased dramatically over the last decade. For example, this years rate of reported gonorrhea infections is expected to be 58 percent higher than last years. That leads the department to believe the rate of HIV infection is also on the rise.

Its a big red flag for us, he said.

The problem faced by Health and Social Services is that despite the fact that AIDS testing is free in this county, many people have been unwilling to take the test.

Jack Miller believes that many have been too embarrassed to do so, since the Health Department was housed in the same building as state welfare services until this year.

Marinda Miller believes a large amount of misinformation in this county is to blame for the lack of testing.

Among the myths she cited were the belief that Monoxynol-9, a popular spermicide, will kill the AIDS virus. It wont. Neither will birth control pills or sexual lubricants.

She added that some people have told her that there is a cure for AIDS as long as it is caught early on. There isnt at any stage.

Jack Miller said the countys lack of knowledge about the virus also stems from a perceived notion of immunity since AIDS is a big city problem, and this area is both rural and isolated.

Even though were isolated, we have a large exposure, he said, noting the large numbers of tourists and other transients travelling through the area.

Even one such exposure could have drastic consequences for the community.

Its like a wildfire, Jack Miller said. It can spread that fast.

He added that nationwide attitudes about AIDS have changed over the past decade.

If you look at the national numbers ... people really relaxed on HIV, he said, noting that after a decline in the early 1990s the rate of infection has begun rising again.

Marinda Miller attributed that increase in the rate of infection to apathy created by the fact that a person infected with HIV can expect to live in excess of a decade without suffering any symptoms of the disease due to modern medications.

They dont see the consequence of the action immediately, she said. Its not a problem yet.

The existence of the cocktail of medications given to patients in the early stages of AIDS has also created a new danger.

As more medications come out, more strains of the virus come out, Jack Miller said. Thus far, there have been five distinct strains of the AIDS virus identified by scientists with some proving more deadly than the original strains.

They work around the medication and find other ways to attack the body, Marinda Miller said.

In addition to strengthening existing AIDS education programs, the $81,000 grant will be used to fund outreach programs for those at the greatest risk.

Among those are poverty-stricken and homeless people, as well as local minorities.

Both Jack and Marinda Miller argued that conventional educational methods are lost on these populations since they often have no way to avail themselves of these services.

The solution, Jack Miller argues, is to bring AIDS education to them.

He anticipated that in the coming year there would be more of a push toward educating Smith Rivers Hispanic population, as well as the local Hmong population.

He pointed to successful efforts by the county health department at the Smith River Rancheria in the past few years.

In addition to providing greater access to education, the department will use the funding to provide on-site testing for those believing themselves to be in danger. Currently, those wishing to be tested are required to go to the departments offices at 555 H St. in Crescent City.

Who should be tested for AIDS?

Everybody, Marinda Miller said, without hesitation.

If youre sexually active, be tested, Jack Miller said.

In addition to the conventional methods of acquiring the AIDS virus sexual intercourse and fluid transfer through contaminated needles two new methods have made themselves known: body piercing and tattooing.

Body piercing done with contaminated needles runs the same risk of contamination as intravenous drug use.

Tattooing has a hidden risk. Despite the fact that a needle may be clean, the virus may be passed on through contaminated ink.

No ones immune, said Marinda Miller.

Both Jack and Marinda Miller said they are heartened by the fact that some in the community seem to be realizing that fact.

A recent event at the Del Norte County fair centered around AIDS education revealed that overall, most of our youth are better able to do this than our parents, Jack Miller said.