By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Three months into the District's HIV campaign, almost 3 percent of more than 7,000 people tested at community health sites have been found to be positive for the virus -- more than double the national rate.
The city has distributed about 20,000 free oral-swab test kits to clinics, nonprofit groups, hospitals and other providers since it kicked off the campaign, which urges screening for all residents 14 to 84 years old. The incidence detected so far -- including in more than one of every 20 inmates at the D.C. jail -- is the first definitive look at the prevalence of HIV infection in the city.
The findings, announced yesterday during a meeting of the Mayor's Task Force on HIV and AIDS, support what local officials have long suspected: that the city has one of the highest infection rates in the country.
"All the numbers point to [the fact that] we have a serious problem in our community," said Marsha Martin, who leads the D.C. Administration for HIV Policy and Programs.
If the numbers hold up in the overall population as testing expands, they could presage far higher HIV rates within such at-risk groups as gays and IV-drug users. "It's very likely," Martin said. Already, the tests found that 10 percent of the men and women served recently by a needle-exchange program's mobile van were infected.
The city effort aims to make HIV testing a routine part of any health-care encounter, whether a regular checkup, an unscheduled trip to the hospital emergency room or a stop at a neighborhood wellness fair. Studies show that people who know their status are more likely to take action that would stop transmission of the virus. Those who know they are HIV positive are more likely to seek medical care that helps preserve their health.
As the campaign expands testing in coming months, it also will distribute $60,000 of prevention: 1 million condoms, delivering many of them to restaurants, bars, liquor stores and hotels in the hope that they will be readily visible and available for patrons and passersby.
Ron Simmons, president of the nonprofit group Us Helping Us, endorses the move. "Condoms should be plentiful," he said. "When people see them, they do tend to use them."
The first "Get Screened for HIV" promotions appeared in late June on buses and Metro trains and in radio announcements and pronouncements from such people as Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). Community health-care providers administered 3,800 tests that month -- almost twice as many as usual, officials said yesterday.
During the summer, an additional 1,843 people were tested in other community settings, including the HIV administration's weekly appearances at Freedom Plaza downtown. The campaign returns there today with speakers and a group of hip-hop artists that sings about HIV prevention.
"We've come a long way," Martin said. "We have a community that is talking about HIV on an ongoing basis, and that's real important because before it wasn't being talked about at all."
The program has 80,000 test kits on hand and aspires to have them all distributed by the end of the year.
The oral swabs, which deliver results within 20 minutes, soon will be offered regularly at Howard University Hospital, and George Washington University Hospital has started a pilot program of routine testing in its emergency department. Student health centers at four local colleges also have agreed to do the same.
"Our students are very active in health and promoting good health," said Dan Bruey, health center director at American University. "Where we could help any, and prevent future spreading of HIV and future costs," seemed a good decision, he said.
This fall, Martin intends to approach about 200 District physicians to ask for their participation through their private practices. Nationally, the majority of HIV tests are done in doctors' offices, not public health venues.
By the end of the year, the HIV administration expects to have a complete analysis of people tested, by gender, age, ethnicity and possibly Zip code.