When It Comes to AIDS, a Tale of Two Washingtons

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Sunday, December 2, 2007

"Oh Jose, can you see?"

Josh sounded like his usual peppy self when he called not too long ago. He asked me about the upcoming Jay-Z album -- "You buying it?" -- and wondered when we'd hang out. I was in Kentucky on assignment, following John Edwards around in a rental car, a world away from Washington's ongoing AIDS epidemic. Still, it was good to hear Josh's voice.

Three weeks later, I got another call. This one was from Joseph's House, an AIDS care home in Adams Morgan.

Josh had died on Oct. 24, a month shy of his 24th birthday.

Joshua Murray was the first person I thought of when the District's HIV/AIDS Administration released a 120-page study last week declaring the city's AIDS problem "a modern epidemic." The report was announced with great fanfare, earning headlines nationwide. Here's new information! Ring the alarm! Let's get cracking!

But Josh had been living with this "modern epidemic" for more than two decades. He was born with HIV (though his twin wasn't) and had never lived a day without being sick. For the thousands of D.C. residents who have HIV or AIDS -- and for longtime AIDS workers who've read report after report -- it's a familiar routine: The District gets a new AIDS director. The director starts to clean house. Numbers are released, but past projections remain valid: One in 20 city residents is thought to have HIV and one in 50 has AIDS, rates higher than those in many poorer countries. The mayor reacts, offers another list of promises.

And nothing much happens.

Folks are wondering: Will this change under the new mayor? Can Adrian Fenty treat the city's AIDS problem with the same energy, the same creativity, that he has shown in tackling the District's failing public schools? Is Shannon Hader, whom Fenty appointed as the new AIDS director in October -- the third since 2004 and the 12th in 21 years -- another Michelle Rhee?

If past is prologue, the city won't get a handle on its AIDS problem. That means continuing illness, heartbreak and tragedy for many of the real people behind the numbers, people like Josh Murray.

And the numbers are staggering. About 12,500 District residents have HIV or AIDS. Of the nearly 3,300 new HIV cases reported between 2001 and 2006, 37 percent were spread through heterosexual sex, 25 percent through homosexual sex. More than 80 percent of those new cases were among African Americans: men, women, teenagers. And perhaps the most worrisome figure of all -- because, with enough education, it's easily preventable -- is the number of pediatric cases: 56 children born with either HIV or AIDS in the past five years.

Josh was a child like that. I met him last year, when I wrote a year-long series of stories chronicling the scope of the city's AIDS problem, how it moved from the gay community to the community at large, its effect on generations of black women and men, the divide between gays who have it and those who don't. On World AIDS Day last December, The Washington Post's Web site created an interactive "quilt" of 25 HIV-positive District residents and AIDS workers living with the disease. Josh was the youngest person featured.

When it comes to HIV/AIDS, there are two Washingtons. There's the Washington of politicians, think tanks and global health organizations, all addressing the illness as an international crisis. For them, AIDS is "over there," in Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America. Then there's the other Washington, the District of Columbia, that has consistently battled a spreading disease right here in our back yard. What makes it especially tragic and confounding is that more than 20 years ago, the District was one of the first cities in the country to create an AIDS office.

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