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Conservative Community Faces AIDS Deaths

February 1, 1995

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ Not the churches, the conservatives nor anything else about the nation’s heartland can stop AIDS. Not even in this God-fearing town that evangelist Oral Roberts calls home.

And now federal health statistics show that more young people die here of AIDS than are killed in accidents.

``You usually think of New York and California″ when it comes to AIDS, Tulsa City-County Health Department spokesman Glenn Burnett said Tuesday. ``It only shows that people are going to have to take it seriously.″

Residents of this metropolitan area of more than half a million people elect the most conservative of politicians. It’s a place where folks return to start families. Roberts teaches that premarital sex and homosexuality are perversions.

AIDS counselors, however, describe Tulsa as a community in denial about the reality of AIDS.

``We’re in the middle of an epidemic,″ said Sharon Thoele, executive director of the HIV Resource Consortium in Tulsa. ``How many women and children have to have it before everyone else realizes that?″

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta released figures Monday that showed Tulsa as one of 79 cities where AIDS has surpassed accidents as a cause of death among Americans 25 to 44 years old.

HIV infection killed 50 young adults in Tulsa County in 1993, compared with 43 accidental deaths, state Health Department statistics show. Unlike the national figures, however, which showed AIDS as the No. 1 cause of death in the age group, cancer led in Tulsa, claiming the lives of 57 young adults.

AIDS is still an extremely rare disease in young adults. But so, too, are all other potential causes of death in that age group, such as heart disease and cancer.

Indeed, federal statistics show that in 1993, AIDS killed just 35 of every 100,000 Americans between ages 25 and 44. The same year, about 32 per 100,000 nationally died from accidents, followed by cancer, heart disease, suicide and murder.

David Smith, a 28-year-old Tulsan, learned the hard way of AIDS’ threat in the heartland.

Smith grew up in a charismatic church in McAlester, in southeastern Oklahoma. By his early 20s, he was teaching third- and fourth-graders in Sunday school and was preparing to become a missionary.

But as a teen, he had engaged in sex with women and men. And at age 23, Smith was diagnosed with AIDS-related complex, a precursor to full-blown AIDS.

His church stripped him of his teaching duties, Smith said. His community shunned him.

``My friends at church wouldn’t talk to me. Nobody would sit by me,″ he said. ``There would be three empty pews in front of me and three behind me.″

Smith now serves as an AIDS counselor in Tulsa and on an AIDS education panel that tours area high schools.

He said the high school students view AIDS ``as part of being in the big, bad world.″

Fears of ostracism and limits on AIDS education inhibit preventive efforts, health officials say.

The state requires that public school students receive four hours of AIDS education from the sixth grade until they graduate. But Ms. Thoele said AIDS educators usually are not allowed to discuss safe sex.

``We send kids through driver’s ed ... but we can’t go in and do the same kinds of educational training to teach kids how to protect themselves,″ she said.

``It can happen to anybody,″ Smith said. ``And it does.″

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