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D.C. Wants HIV Testing for All Residents 14 to 84

Brandon Armani, right, with Unity Health Care works at a mobile HIV testing center last year. The District has the highest national rate of new AIDS cases, 179.2 per 100,000 people.
Brandon Armani, right, with Unity Health Care works at a mobile HIV testing center last year. The District has the highest national rate of new AIDS cases, 179.2 per 100,000 people. (By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)

Smith's caveat was echoed by Patricia Nalls, executive director of the Women's Collective in Northwest Washington. The nonprofit provides care to 350 HIV-positive women, from teenagers to senior citizens, and is among the community groups that the city government is counting on to help newly diagnosed residents. Nalls, however, has heard few specifics about the initiative. She said that without greater funding, it would be difficult to handle significantly more clients.

"So there's going to be a group of people who find out they're positive," she said. "How are we going to take care of them? Is there a plan in place to take care of them?"

Many details of the campaign remain in flux, despite a kickoff scheduled for Tuesday morning as part of the 12th annual National HIV Testing Day. Starting at 10 a.m. at Freedom Plaza, HIV tests and information will be offered along with speeches by city officials, religious and health-care leaders and people living with the virus.

Some leaders may be tested publicly to underscore the message that anyone can be at risk.

Martin promised in an interview this week that "Come Together D.C., Get Screened for HIV" -- the slogan headed for billboards and promotional blurbs -- will extend beyond screening. Her administration will expand outreach, counseling and treatment services in the community, she said. It is planning a program that would provide HIV-positive residents with helpers to get them through rough periods and to keep them on medication schedules.

Celia Maxwell, assistant vice president for health sciences at Howard University, foresees certain hurdles in the screening effort. "The biggest challenge is going to be getting all providers on board and having them see how this could be a benefit to their practice," she said. "But at the end of the day, it will provide for a healthier D.C."

Administration officials have mailed information about the campaign to 45 physician groups in the city and have held discussions with emergency room doctors in the city's larger hospitals. The doctors are learning why the city wants to test even residents in their mid-eighties, two decades past the CDC proposal.

"Sixty-four seemed to be an arbitrary cutoff for assuming participation in sexual behavior and other behavior that might make [people] vulnerable," Martin said. And 14 is the jumping-off point to high school for most youths.

The campaign is the city's most dramatic action on HIV/AIDS since Martin took office last summer, after D.C. Appleseed's first report resulted in her predecessor's firing.

She has advocated widespread distribution of condoms and a broader needle exchange program, both of which are to come, she says.

In the District, said Vanessa Johnson, deputy executive director of the National Association of People with AIDS, "there's an urgency to the matter."

"Many people will not get tested or are afraid to get tested," said Johnson, who has been living with HIV since 1990. "They don't want to be ostracized or rejected."

Yet early testing can make a life-or-death difference, she said: "Once the virus has done substantial damage to the immune system, it's almost impossible to rebound."


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