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      Vandalized sign replaced

      It was an act of vandalism that outraged those who work with people with HIV and AIDS in the community. Now, a sign that was spray-painted with a derogatory word has been replaced.

      Some people who live near the billboard on the corner of Valley Drive and Cortland Place in Syracuse say they noticed the vandalism several weeks ago. The word "fags" was painted on a billboard encouraging people to seek out resources for HIV and AIDS. "Some punk came by and decided to put a terrible word up there and deface something that should be drawing people in for help," says Donna Romano, who lives down the street from the billboard.

      Kathleen Westers noticed it when she was driving by with her 8-year-old son. "I just think it's mean. I just think 'Why do people have to go and put something up on a billboard?'" says Westers.

      AIDS Community Resources learned about the vandalism Tuesday and contacted the sign company. By Wednesday morning, it had been replaced. Workers say the act of vandalism shows the stigma against AIDS still exists. "You can walk through a school hallway and inevitably you'll hear 'That's so gay' or guys going 'You're a fag" because of this, that, or the other thing. 'You're not acting manly enough today,'" says Teen AIDS Task Force Supervisor Marissa Rice.

      The vandalism comes as Onondaga County is seeing a spike in HIV cases. Last month, the State Health Department reported 10 new HIV cases in the county since December. Those cases were primarily men ages 17-25 who had sex with other men. Still, AIDS Community Resources workers say it's important to remember anyone can be affected by the disease.

      "If you're accepting and tolerant and knowledgeable and embracing, you need to be more vocal, as vocal as the people who are feeling all the hate," says Rice.

      The State Health Department put up the billboard, and a spokesperson called the vandalism "ironic" since the point of the campaign is to reduce the stigma of AIDS, not to reinforce it.