A little more than 12 years ago, Michael Cutts learned he was one of the growing number of metro-east residents living with HIV.
"When they first tell you that you have HIV it overcomes you," the 56-year-old Belleville man said. "You ask, 'Why me?' ... Once I finally got myself together I decided it was one more thing to have the determination to fight. One more thing in my life to cope with and manage. You must live your life without letting it overcome your life."
Since his diagnosis, hundreds more local residents have been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, according to state records. St. Clair County has endured a spike in such cases according to the last five years of available records.
AIDS is the final stage of the incurable HIV disease that ravages a person's immune system, leaving their body unable to fight off infections or cancers. It can be spread through sexual contact, needle sharing or from mother to child.
The number of St. Clair County residents living with HIV or AIDS jumped 28 percent between 2006 and 2011, according to the latest available statistics from the Illinois Department of Public Health. The statistics for 2012 will be available this fall. The increase likely outpaced population growth during that time as the county's population only grew about 5 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Tina Markovich manages 16 case workers within the HIV/AIDS program at the St. Clair County Health Department. The program is paid for through the state and federal sources, and helps low-income patients find treatment and other resources in a 12-county region including St. Clair County.
"(The program) was first created to help people at the end of their life," Markovich said. "Now patients need a plan to sustain their life in the long-term. People diagnosed in the 1980s are still alive and could live another 20, 30 years."
As a region, the local rate of new HIV and AIDS cases is second in the state only to the Chicago area. Within the region, at least 1,240 people are living with HIV and 623 people are living with AIDS. In 2011 alone, 86 people were diagnosed with HIV and 43 people with AIDS in the county's service area.
One of the case managers, Wendy Bradley, said her perspective of those with HIV or AIDS changed drastically in her first seven months on the job. Bradley said she quickly found her clients were "like anybody else."
"I feel terrible for these people because there is such ignorance around it," Bradley said. "They feel so alone. I'm not afraid of these people anymore. HIV is not something you can get easily."
The program recently hired an additional case worker to handle the growing number of HIV and AIDS patients in Belleville. Case managers should be near patients for convenience and the department "definitely saw the numbers could support" an additional manager in Belleville, according to county Director of Community Health Mark Peters.
A growing problem
St. Clair County had 641 residents living with HIV or AIDS in 2011 compared to 500 cases in 2006 -- an additional 141 people. In comparison, neighboring Madison County saw an increase of 35 people living with the disease from 215 residents in 2006 to 250 people in 2011.
The disease takes a heavier toll on black men than other genders or races, according to local statistics.
Of those reported diagnosed with HIV in 2011, the state found:
* 59 percent were black.
* 72 percent were men.
* Two-thirds of those men were reported to have sex with other men.
* 44 percent of all new HIV cases were diagnosed in people less than 30 years old.
Similar findings were reported for those diagnosed with AIDS in the same year.
Cutts said he wished community groups would do more to rally around treatment and efforts to prevent the disease.
"I would especially like to see black churches involved," Cutts said. "Instead of talking about who is going to heaven and who is going to hell, let's try to help each other."
Trouble reaching vulnerable
Youth HIV rates are "very high" for local young people between the ages of 13 and 24 years old, but the stigma of the disease can make it difficult to reach those most at risk, Markovich said.
Education is the key to preventing the spread of HIV and AIDS upon the county's 60,000 adolescents, Peters said, and the county has health educators waiting to help. However, schools must request their help and parents must give permission for their kids to attend a program.
"It's very difficult to get into some schools," Markovich said. "HIV is a very sensitive topic and can be a barrier at some schools."
Even when health educators are able to reach students the message is tailored to the policies of the school's board of education, Peters said.
Often the health professionals must present programs on "life skills" such as general decision-making instead of speaking directly about the causes and treatments of HIV or AIDS, Markovich said.
Peters said more schools are calling the department asking for help in educating students on their health, and the most open schools become the healthiest over time.
Most state money for HIV prevention targets so-called at-risk populations, such as black or Hispanic men, not youths in general, Markovich said.
The county health department partners with multiple agencies to educate residents and care for HIV/AIDS patients in St. Clair County, including the East Side Health District. Representatives with the East Side district could not be reached for comment. The district has three clinics based in schools in East St. Louis and Cahokia.
Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at email@example.com or 618-239-2501.