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Health Agency Counselors Must Break ‘AIDS’ News to Partners

March 13, 1989

PEORIA, Ill. (AP) _ When Shellie Wilkes was interviewing for a job with the Peoria City-County Health Department, she wondered how she’d ever handle the grim task of telling people they had AIDS or were exposed to the disease.

″I remember asking myself how can anyone stand that kind of job every day,″ said Mrs. Wilkes, program coordinator in the sexually transmitted disease division.

″It can be depressing,″ she said. ″But ... if we’ve helped others avoid getting infected with AIDS, then it’s all worth it.″

In the last nine months, she and other health department employees across Illinois have been tracking down people who have had dangerous contact with AIDS patients - either through sexual relations or sharing of hypodermic drug needles - to break the news that they may have been exposed to the deadly virus.

A state law that took effect last July requires everyone who tests positive for the AIDS virus to notify their sex partners or anyone with whom they shared needles.

The law allows victims of acquired immune deficiency syndrome to simply give the names of their partners to their local health department and let officials spread the word.

Illinois has been a leading state in passing legislation to fight AIDS, including a law requiring AIDS tests for people seeking marriage licenses. The law has been blamed for sending many couples to adjoining states to get married.

In Chicago, notification of possible AIDS infection is not spreading as quickly as health officials would like because of a lack of manpower.

″We do the best we can but we’ve only got two investigators to cover the entire city,″ said Brian Chapman, director of Chicago’s AIDS surveillance unit. ″We’ve made about 70 or 80 notification attempts and been successful on about 40 or 50.″

He said the need to protect confidentiality also makes the job difficult.

″People with AIDS are losing their jobs, their families, their incomes,″ Chapman said. ″We must protect them and be discreet.″

Like Mrs. Wilkes, Chapman finds the job depressing at times.

″The emotions go from A to Z,″ he said. ″Some people are absolutely shocked. Others are not surprised. It can get to you. But you have to view it with a professional eye.″

Mrs. Wilkes is motivated by the need to educate people about the dangers and facts of being exposed to AIDS.

″We try not to give them a false sense of hope,″ she said. ″We also tell them that they aren’t necessarily infected with AIDS simply because they’ve been exposed to it.″

Illinois Department of Public Health statistics show 2,580 cases of AIDS have been reported in Illinois, with the bulk of those, 2,329, in the metropolitan Chicago area.

A random survey of health departments in central Illinois only produced a handful of instances where the AIDS notification law has been invoked, but officials expect that phase of their job to grow with the number of AIDS cases.

Peoria County had its first case reported in 1984 and there were seven last year, bringing the total to 14 - half of which have been fatal.

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