June 17, 2011

The District’s efforts to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic are working. Last week’s release of the D.C. Department of Health’s annual report on HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases is the latest evidence of the effectiveness of the city’s response. Since 2006, the District has nearly tripled the number of publicly supported HIV tests each year — from 40,000 to 110,000. Last year, we distributed more than 4 million condoms, removed 320,000 used needles from the street and continued our award-winning advertising and social media campaign to promote condom use. Our prevention and treatment programs, which include a revamped school health curriculum, are aggressive, innovative and effective.

When I became the chairman of the D.C. Council’s Health Committee six years ago, this was not the state of affairs that I encountered. The District government’s response to the epidemic at that time was dysfunctional on every level. We were unable to pay our providers, failed to monitor grants and had no data with which to track the spread of the disease. A generation of ineptitude on behalf of our local government resulted in a system that was rife with fraud and gave rise to today’s headline-grabbing 3.2 percent infection rate.

While we continue to suffer as a result of earlier inaction, last week’s report shows that we are not doomed to repeat history. In fact, the latest data reveal that we are making significant progress confronting HIV/AIDS. According to the report, we have seen a greater than 50 percent reduction in deaths among persons infected with the disease over the last four years and have witnessed a nearly equal reduction in the percentage of individuals transitioning from HIV to AIDS.

Our data also indicate that D.C. residents are learning their HIV status earlier and are seeking care more often. This not only improves the quality of life of infected individuals, but it is also a highly effective prevention strategy. The latest research shows that HIV-positive individuals who discover their status early, and who properly use medications, can live longer and are significantly less likely to transmit the disease.

Our long-term success will require using our data to focus prevention efforts among the communities most affected by the disease; to double down on our testing and condom-distribution efforts; to connect even more people to care quickly; and to keep infected individuals adherent to medications. Finally, unlike in other parts of the country, we must make sure that those who are infected are never subjected to a waiting list for the anti-retroviral drugs they need to live.

Ironically, as we continue to aggressively confront this disease, our overall HIV/AIDS rate will continue to remain high. Expanded testing and enhanced treatment will result in HIV-positive individuals living longer and healthier lives, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, it also means that we will live with epidemic levels of HIV/AIDS for some time to come.

While we have a long way to go to eliminate this disease, this year’s report shows that, for the first time in a generation, we are beginning to make real progress in our fight against HIV/AIDS. This will be a story worth telling when the world comes to our city for the International AIDS Society Conference in July 2012.

The writer (I-At Large) is a member of the D.C. Council.