DC: Making progress in an AIDS hot-spot

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by Freddie Allen
For New Pittsburgh Courier

WASHINGTON (NNPA)—As Washington, D.C., hosts the 2012 International AIDS Conference this week, residents in the nation’s capital continue to battle epidemic levels of HIV/AIDS.

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SIGNS OF HOPE—People hold signs and balloons as they participate in the AIDS March in Washington, July 22. More than 20,000 international HIV researchers and activists are meeting this week in the nation’s capital this week with a sense of optimism not seen in many years. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

According to a report released by the District’s Department of Health, the prevalence rate—or the proportion of cases within a given population—of HIV among adults and children living in Washington is 3.2 percent. The World Health Organization states that a 1 percent prevalence rate in the general population meets the criteria for an HIV/AIDS epidemic.

President Obama lifted the 22-year-old order that banned people living with HIV/AIDS from traveling to the United States, paving the way for the conference to return to the United States for the first time in 22 years.

“If we want to be the global leader in combating HIV/AIDS, we need to act like it,” Obama announced in 2009.

Leadership was sorely needed in the District in 2005 when Appleseed, a non-profit organization that examines public policy in the Washington Metro area, gave the city government failing grades for their HIV/AIDS initiatives. Following the stinging report, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty announced that fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the city was his top public health priority.

Since the announcement, the District has made strides in reducing the number of people living with AIDS in the city and toward getting more residents living with HIV/AIDS in treatment programs. The city’s Department of Health reported that the number of AIDS cases declined by 30 percent from 2005 to 2009 and now more than 75 percent of D.C. residents get treatment within three months of their diagnosis, compared to just 58 percent in 2005.

When it comes to HIV/AIDS, Blacks are overrepresented in the population of Washingtonians living with the disease. The nation’s capital is 52 percent Black and 35.2 percent White, but 75 percent of the HIV/AIDS cases are Black and 16.6 percent are White.

Black women in D.C. were 14 times more likely to be living with HIV/AIDS than White women. Fifty-four percent of women living in D.C. are Black, yet Black women accounted for 91.1 percent of HIV/AIDS cases and White women, who represent 33.3 percent of the female population in the District, accounted for 3 percent of the HIV/AIDS cases.

“As a citizen of the United States and knowing that this is my nation’s capital and knowing that this is something that I can do something about we decided to embark on a program that really tried to change the paradigm in Washington,” said Dr. Carl Dieffenbach of the Division of AIDS at the National Institutes of Health.

Dieffenbach said that getting tested has to become a badge of honor in the Black community, like it is in the gay community in San Francisco. The researcher also said that educating Blacks about the role that clinical trials play in fighting HIV/AIDS is also an important factor in stemming the tide of HIV infections. Dieffenbach announced that NIH will be bringing a series of PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) demonstration projects and clinical trials on new PrEP agents to Washington, D.C. Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis refers to HIV-negative people at risk of infection taking daily antiretroviral therapy to decrease their risk for becoming infected if exposed to HIC. According to the CDC, PrEP, when used as prescribed, has been shown to be effective in reducing the transmission of HIV in men who have sex with men (MSM).

Although MSM is the highest mode of HIV transmission for Whites (75.2 percent), a majority of Blacks (34.3 percent) contracted HIV through heterosexual contact followed by MSM (24.3 percent). Dieffenbach said that clinical trials involving new PrEP agents for MSM who live in D.C. will begin in August and another for women will begin later this year.

African-American women in the city’s communities most at-risk for health and income disparities can use all the help that they can get. Their HIV infection rates soared in the last two years, almost doubling from 6.3 percent to 12.1 percent according to the health department study.

DOH officials said that the increase is likely attributable to increased testing of residents who didn’t know their HIV status.

As the District struggles to find answers to its own unique HIV/AIDS epidemic, this week, city leaders will be talking more about recent successes and less about past failures.

City council member David Catania (I–At Large) touted Washington’s success at stemming the tide of new HIV/AIDS infections and treating those infected with HIV sooner in recent op-ed for the Washington Post.

Catania looks at AIDS 2012 as an opportunity for D.C. residents and the international community to share lessons learned and diverse perspectives in a “spirit of collaboration.”

Adam Tenner looks forward to those collaborations as well. Tenner, the executive director of Metro TeenAIDS, a non-profit group based in Washington, D.C., that supports young people in their fight against HIV/AIDS, said that the support and additional resources that come with increased visibility local organizations is even more important. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that Black teens (ages 13-19) make up 17 percent of the U.S. teen population, but accounted for 68 percent of new AIDS cases in their age group in 2009.

Tenner said, “From Metro Teen AIDS’ perspective, at the end of the day, we’re still going to be here next Sunday night and we have a lot of work to do and we need support in doing that.”

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