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Budget blues

Pueblo HIV/AIDS support center closes amid funding pinch

John Potterat led the charge against sexually - transmitted - diseases in El Paso County for almost 30 years. - DAN WILCOCK
  • Dan Wilcock
  • John Potterat led the charge against sexually transmitted diseases in El Paso County for almost 30 years.

The doors closed forever at the Pueblo office of the Southern Colorado AIDS Project in late January, another casualty of slashed funding for HIV and AIDS across the region.

Between 80 to 100 people with HIV or AIDS received counseling, help with paying bills, or assistance from a staff of trained professionals and volunteers at the office, north of downtown. It will be replaced with a mobile care unit.

"Our service managers found themselves serving more clients with fewer resources," said Fred Padeway, board president of the southern Colorado AIDS Project (S-CAP), which also has offices in Colorado Springs and Alamosa.

Despite two decades of progress in containing AIDS in Southern Colorado, local activists and health administrators now find themselves fighting another battle: continuing their work despite slashed budgets.

S-CAP is now operating at a deficit after losing two large federal grants last year amounting to around $130,000 -- or around 10 percent of their annual budget.

In El Paso County, with 1,000 people currently living with HIV or AIDS, the Department of Health and Environment's sexually transmitted disease unit will receive less than $150,000 in federal grants this year -- half the amount it received in 2002.

Declining numbers

Despite the cuts, Helen Rogers, director of the health department's sexually transmitted disease unit, remains upbeat. "Our county has been doing quite well," she said. Since the local height of the epidemic in 1986, the rate of new infections has steadily declined from 43 per 100,000 persons to 4.5 per 100,000 last year.

Much of the decline in new infections is due to the work of the STD unit, which is recognized nationwide for its pioneering work tracking down HIV and AIDS -- a virus that is transferred by unprotected sex, blood transfusions or drug needles and cripples the immune system.

"The strength of the Colorado Springs program has always been good data," said John Potterat, who directed sexually transmitted disease programs for the county from 1972 until 2001.

When AIDS first began appearing in the early '80s, Potterat formed a crew of staffers who would visit houses of prostitution, heroin "shooting galleries" and gay bars in Colorado Springs, handing out condoms and keeping track of infected persons.

Ignorance isn't bliss

Dwindling funds for AIDS relief can partly be blamed on budget woes at the county, state and national levels. But federal funding patterns also play a role.

The Bush administration, in its 2006 budget proposal, proposes cutting $4 million from a $960 million sexually transmitted disease prevention program while adding $39 million to what will amount to a $270 million abstinence-only education program. This education policy teaches teens that the only way to prevent pregnancy is to not have sex, but it does not discuss contraception or how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases.

Potterat said he supports abstinence education, but solely relying on it "doesn't get at the reality" about sex, and may put some teens at greater risk of exposure due to lack of information about safe sex.

And for the volunteers at S-CAP, ignorance could easily lead to rising infection rates. "A lot of the younger generation is going out and having unprotected sex with an it-can't-happen-to-me attitude," Padeway said. "The disease doesn't discriminate."

Dan Wilcock

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