D.C. Aims to Increase HIV Testing of Youths

By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 28, 2007

With HIV rates almost doubling among teenagers and young adults since 2000, the District will emphasize prevention and education in a three-year initiative involving community groups, the public schools and strategies geared to a video- and cyber-savvy generation, city leaders said yesterday.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and city health director Gregg A. Pane used National HIV Testing Day to announce the effort, which aims to boost by 25 percent the number of young people who know their HIV status. It will be one of several new undertakings, all of which target some of the city's most at-risk populations, and could force the often-criticized school system to implement a comprehensive, up-to-date HIV/AIDS curriculum.

"We want to push the envelope. . . . We have to be aggressive," said Fenty, who recently appointed the first schools chancellor and charged her with transforming nearly every aspect of the system.

A youth plan, Pane agreed, is vital and "overdue."

Between 2001 and 2005, according to the city Health Department, almost 10 percent of 4,027 HIV cases in the District involved residents 13 to 24. Most were infected after engaging in unprotected sex. But in a growing number of cases, the virus was transmitted at birth, explaining why the department is encouraging medical providers to screen pregnant women for HIV.

"It should be a routine part of patient testing," Pane said.

In a city with one of the highest AIDS rates in the country -- and, officials estimate, where as many as one in 20 residents carry the virus that causes the disease -- the annual National HIV Testing Day carries much import.

Free screening and education clinics were held across the District into the evening. La Clinica del Pueblo opened its doors in Adams Morgan for 12 hours. Unity Health Care's mobile van made stops in Northeast and Northwest, at street corners and a shopping center. Howard University provided tests in its hospital lobby and student health center.

And at Metropolitan AME Church, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) gathered with ministers who submitted to the quick oral swab that is at the center of the city's testing efforts. Norton has taken an increasingly visible role in HIV/AIDS awareness since last fall, convening town hall meetings that have emphasized various groups' responsibilities in reversing the local epidemic.

"We are looking at ourselves," Norton said, "as a community looking for a cure for the civic and spiritual crisis among many African Americans that allows residents to forgo safe sex, pass this disease to spouses and friends, and fear getting tested."

Perhaps a quarter of the more than 1 million Americans with HIV are not aware of their status, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health experts say detection is key to stopping the spread of the virus, because people who know they are infected are more likely to seek medical care and change their behavior.

A year ago at Freedom Plaza, D.C. health officials drew attention to the testing day when they announced an HIV screening campaign aimed at city residents ages 14 to 84. The launch garnered national headlines and praise, but its broad ambition was not sustained, and the campaign ended in December with mixed success.

The Health Department has not released comprehensive results of the effort and has not responded to a Freedom of Information Act request for statistics that The Washington Post filed last month. Data that Fenty and Pane alluded to yesterday suggest that only a tenth of the city's target population responded to the call to get tested. Still, the nearly 45,000 people who did in 2006 represented an increase of 60 percent over 2005.

The campaign revealed an HIV-positive rate of about 2.2 percent, Pane said. Almost 90 percent of those found to be infected were African American. Much of the testing took place in the D.C. jail and two hospitals that instituted routine testing or through community organizations.

Pane said that incomplete planning limited the campaign's impact and what the department learned from it.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company