AIDS: Wasted Lives & Money
What happened to half a billion public dollars? And where is city hall?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

DISTRICT OFFICIALS yield to no one in their outspokenness against the HIV-AIDS epidemic spreading from generation to generation in the nation's capital. Their high-flown rhetoric, however, far exceeds their dismal response to a disease that affects nearly one in 50 D.C. residents; Washington has the highest rate of new AIDS cases in the country. That there are now nearly 10,000 people living with AIDS in the District -- and an unknown number of residents with HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) -- after the city has spent nearly half a billion dollars in federal and local funds in the past eight years is shameful, if not scandalous.

What happened to the money? City records, reports The Post's Jose Antonio Vargas, show that hundreds of millions of dollars were distributed to dozens of community groups charged with providing primary medical care; HIV testing, counseling and prevention services; and housing for those with HIV or AIDS. Yet the city, by its own admission, has lost track of the epidemic. D.C. AIDS officials cannot vouch for the accuracy of their HIV data. They don't know how many residents are living with HIV, or the rate of new HIV infections among residents. There have been 11 D.C. AIDS directors in the past 20 years. What's more, according to the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, which monitors the city's progress in addressing the epidemic, the city AIDS unit responsible for tracking the spread of HIV and AIDS has a staff vacancy rate of greater than 50 percent. D.C. Appleseed also reported this month that the District's annual rate of new AIDS cases is nearly 12 times the national average. That's after spending nearly half a billion dollars.

What's missing in the city's efforts? Determination and commitment from the District's public officials, D.C. Appleseed says, and we agree. Sexual activity and drug use lead to the transmission of HIV, a point that D.C. Appleseed makes, and one that D.C. leaders know all too well. Yet where are the straight talk and the persistent message that should be coming out of city hall? Where is the leadership necessary to mobilize the civic community -- clergy, community groups, business and labor organizations and families -- to speak out candidly and frequently about HIV and AIDS? Funding isn't the problem. Sustained attention at the highest level of city government is, sad to say, the missing ingredient. The proof? Millions spent with unknown results, more AIDS deaths and untold new infections.

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