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HIV Outbreak Among Rural N.Y. Females Linked to Drug Dealer

By David Lauter
Los Angeles Times

At least nine females in a semi-rural area of western New York state, including one as young as 13, have been infected with the virus that causes AIDS by a 20-year-old man who sold drugs to schoolgirls in exchange for sex even though he knew he had the disease, officials said Monday.

"He liked to lurk around the edges of schools or parks, maybe where kids would be playing basketball, and pick out young ladies who may, for one reason or another, be in a risk-taking mode," Chautauqua County Health Commissioner Richard Berke said Monday.

The news shocked residents of Chautauqua County, an area that until now had only sporadic contact with the AIDS epidemic.

The case is "the most serious public health issue in the recent memory" of the region, Berke said.

School officials were anguished. "We had, we thought, a pretty good AIDS education program" that was designed to warn children of the dangers, said James Coffman, assistant superintendent of schools in Jamestown, the largest town in the county.

He added, "young people in general, they feel they're invincible. They could have all the education in the world, but they all feel it doesn't affect them. That's the sadness of this."

And officials warned the news could get worse. Although the man who allegedly caused the infections is now in jail on unrelated charges, health officials are continuing to trace nearly 100 people in the area who had sex with him or with his sexual partners.

In addition, they believe that in his travels across New York selling drugs, he may have infected many more people.

"The worst piece of news is we are probably not the worst-case scenario," Berke said.

Similar cases have occurred elsewhere. Earlier this year, for example, a man in St. Louis, Mo., was shot and killed by an unknown assailant after allegedly infecting at least 30 women with the virus. But federal officials termed the current case highly unusual because of the youth of the victims and the seemingly high percentage of people who became infected and because it took place in an area where AIDS remains relatively rare.