LONGMONT — When a person has a heart attack, we blame the triple cheeseburger.
When a person gets lung cancer, we blame the cigarette.
When a person is diagnosed with HIV, we blame the dirty needle or the risky sex.
But just as a fit person can have a heart attack or a nonsmoker can get lung cancer, HIV and AIDS afflicts patients of all lifestyles and backgrounds — from Africa to Boulder County.
“Did a person’s behavior do anything to get it? More often than not, it did, but not always,” said Richard Varnes, spokesman for the Boulder County AIDS Project.
“Are we angry at people who engaged in this behavior? Yeah, we are. But do we ostracize them and somehow deny them medical services or compassion or participation in their faith communities? What’s the difference? I don’t see it,” he said.
In an effort to meet growing needs for prevention, education, testing, counseling and outreach, the Boulder County AIDS Project has purchased an office suite at 82 21st Ave. in the Powell Building in Longmont.
The nonprofit held a grand opening Thursday.
BCAP, which has served the area since 1985 from its Boulder location at 2118 14th St., will share the 2,000- square-foot office space with two other nonprofits, Intercambio de Comunidades and Boulder Valley Women’s Health Center.
BCAP bought the space from the Boulder County Housing Authority with funds from the Worthy Cause Tax and a nonprofit facility loan.
Because it is not increasing staff size, BCAP will unfold its Longmont services slowly, BCAP executive director Robin Bohannan said.
“In order to enact social change within a community, you need to belong to the community,” she said. “It is not appropriate for people in Boulder to tell people in Longmont what they need and need not to do. We felt it was important for us to be based in the community to effect community change.”
She said a Longmont office will help to alleviate barriers — such as transportation, adequate child care or time off from work — for local BCAP clients.
Bohannan also said BCAP would eventually like to create a medical clinic at the Powell Building, though “it is just a vision, a dream” at this time.
“Anything that can add capacity to serve people is a good thing,” she said.
About 1.5 million U.S. residents are living with HIV or AIDS, Varnes said. The total number of AIDS cases reported in Colorado between 1982 and 2005 is 8,393.
“The situation is twofold,” he said. “Because the infection rate is staying the same and the medications are preventing people from dying in the short term, you have an escalating number of chronically ill people dealing with HIV and AIDS.”
Two surveys, the Boulder County Public Health’s Youth Risk Behavior Study and BCAP’s Latino HIV Prevention Needs Assessment, pointed out a need for BCAP to have a physical presence in Longmont, Bohannan said.
Both surveys highlighted an increase in risk behaviors associated with the transmission of HIV: alcohol and drug use; increased depression and suicide among gay, lesbian, transgender and questioning youth; lack of condom use among sexually active gay and Hispanic youths; and an increased number of young Hispanic women engaged in sexual behavior with older Hispanic males.
Also, Bohannan said BCAP hoped to address the range of HIV-prevention efforts, as the St. Vrain Valley School District has an “abstinence only” policy for sexual education.
“Where abstinence is one tool,” she said, “it is a tool that leaves out a whole population of people.”
Varnes said Longmont is home to the fastest-growing population in BCAP’s service area, and the infection rate among Hispanics is rising faster in Boulder County than it is nationally.
The collaboration among BCAP and the two nonprofits sharing its Longmont location will help distribute information and gain trust in the Hispanic community, Varnes said.
Hispanics make up 22 percent of new AIDS cases in Colorado, which is 5 percent higher than the national norm, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Of all new HIV cases diagnosed between 2001 and 2003, 28 percent of diagnosed Hispanics were foreign-born, usually from Mexico.
Also, 70 percent of BCAP clients are at or below the poverty line, Varnes said. Of BCAP’s Hispanic clients in this group, most tended to be undocumented and monolingual.
Varnes acknowledged that BCAP’s focus on this group “was standing on the brink of the immigration issue.”
“And I’m not sure if BCAP has an answer to that,” he said. “But part of our mission is that no one who needs access to information or services that will help them from getting AIDS or maintaining their life quality if they do have AIDS will be denied.
“If you exclude people who aren’t in our system in a certain way, you’re leaving a whole population at risk, and you’re increasing the odds of the virus spreading faster in that population and moving into other populations.”
The state health department also noted that women, people of color, heterosexuals and people who live in rural areas tend to test later in the course of infection, according to the state health department.
“There is a significant untreated population,” Varnes said.
“New sensitivities and new methods of communication” are needed, Varnes noted, to address the changing situation of HIV and AIDS because of anti- retroviral treatment prolonging the life expectancy of patients and the rise in infection rates in certain demographics.
Bohannan said HIV and AIDS continue to be local health issues.
“There are people who still don’t understand how HIV and AIDS are transmitted, and there’s a lot of public education and outreach we can provide,” she said.
“This is a health issue, just like any other health issue that can affect families. It’s imperative that people understand HIV because there’s treatment available. That’s the difference between Boulder County and Africa.”
Melanie M. Sidwell can be reached at 303-684-5274, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.