In June 1981, the United States was on the brink of change, although not necessarily for the better. It was during this month that the first signs of what would eventually be named Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome--AIDS--would surface in America.

What was initially thought to be a form of cancer that only attacked members of the gay community, AIDS has gone on to ravage the world's population by infecting approximately 65 million people of all races, genders and sexual orientation, and taking the lives of 25 million of them.

How did this disease spread so quickly during a quarter of a century? Is there any hope to find a cure?

Questions are still abundant concerning the disease, although information that has been gathered over the quarter century sheds new light on the illness.

It was reported in the June 5, 1981 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly that during the period of October 1980 to May 1981, five men, all active homosexuals in the Los Angeles area, were treated for biopsy-confirmed Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia at three different hospitals. All five patients had laboratory confirmed cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection and candidal mucosal infection. Two of the patients died.

According to the report, the patients did not know each other and had no known common contacts or knowledge of sexual partners who had similar illnesses.

This report was the first official mention of a condition that was nameless, had no known means of transmission, no treatment and no cure.

Since that time, AIDS and HIV have touched millions of lives and continues to spread, despite efforts to combat it. However, Betty Webber, clinical Social Worker for the Pontotoc County Health Department, continues to educate those in the area about disease and how preventative it really is.

"It is preventable, and that's what the health department is all about, prevention," she said. "We just need to get the word out."

Webber has been with PCHD for approximately 10 years and during that time she's seen both increases and decreases of HIV and AIDS in the area, although they are currently on the rise again.

"Statistics are starting to go back up again, and I think that's because young people don't know anybody that did have HIV or AIDS and they don't know the horror of it, of what it actually looks like," she said.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is the virus that causes AIDS. This virus may be passed from one person to another when infected blood, semen or vaginal secretions come into contact with an uninfected person's broken skin or mucous membranes.

Webber explained the process and people who get HIV tests done at the PCHD.

"Normally, the clients that I see are not from Pontotoc County, because they feel more comfortable coming to a county that they don't think they're going to know someone," she said. "When I first started doing this 10 years ago, when you came in for a HIV test, we never took a name, we didn't take a complete address or a phone number. And so it was my job to basically make you feel comfortable enough to come back and get your test results. I was going to give you enough education while you were in here visiting with me so that you would come back. That was my main goal."

Webber also explained that while testing is still anonymous, it has been modified to mix her clients with those who have appointments with other people within the health department to erase some of the stigma that is usually attached when taking a HIV test.

Upon meeting a new client, she also poses one question. "Usually I ask 'What made you decide to get an HIV test?' and that gives me an idea of what you're here," she said. "Sometimes it's like 'Well I was dating this person and and I broke up with them and they called and said they were HIV positive.' I've heard that story probably more than any of them. 99 percent of the time that's not true, because usually the person is just mad and is just wanting revenge. Then we start talking about it. Then I also hear 'I'm here for my test for AIDS.' Well, there is no test for AIDS. The test for HIV is what we're doing, so I explain that to them. Then I also talk about the only ways it can be spread."

As previously mentioned, the spread of HIV is through bodily fluids to various mucous membranes. Webber also took time to dispel myths about contracting the virus.

"Most people think you can't get it though oral sex, well we know it can be, so we talk in detail about that," she said. "I will also talk about if you're a drug user, we will talk about that. I've had several that continuously do that, that come in with track marks on their arm. My job is not to judge that; my job is to make sure they continue to come in and be healthy.

"We've also learned that you can pass it on to your baby. When I first started, the percentage of women that had HIV and passed it on to their baby was 50 percent, and the babies would be dead within three years. It's now down to two percent, because we've learned to tell them no breastfeeding. Also to have a cesarean birth, not a vaginal birth. It's very, very important."

Coming Tuesday — Part 2.

Diagnosed HIV infection and AIDS cases by county as of Dec. 31, 2005.

(Pontotoc County Health Department)

County HIV Cases AIDS Cases

Coal ** **

Garvin 3 8

Hughes ** **

Johnston 5 **

Murray ** 6

Pontotoc 10 20

Pottawatomie 25 51

Seminole County 9 15

** Confidentiality concerns restrict releasing data for counties in Oklahoma, which have two or fewer cases.