Schools Lag Amid Gains On D.C. HIV Report Card

Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is promising a curriculum that addresses HIV-AIDS.
Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is promising a curriculum that addresses HIV-AIDS. (Preston Keres - The Washington Post)
By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Delays in approving comprehensive HIV-AIDS education in District public schools are putting students at risk and impeding the city's promising efforts to combat the epidemic, according to a report to be released today.

"In the midst of this crisis, students should be getting information in school that will help prevent infection for the rest of their lives," says the assessment by the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, an independent advocacy group. Despite repeated school board resolutions for immediate action, "fewer and fewer" youths have received instruction on the virus in recent years.

Education leaders and the Fenty administration should ensure strong standards and curricula are in place before classes start next fall, the organization urges. "The District's young people are entitled to nothing less," it says.

The schools' lack of progress is a glaring negative on the city's report card, the third Appleseed has issued since March 2006. The system's latest grade reflects the problems: a D.

In contrast, the scores of other city programs and officials are improving. For the first time, two of the dozen areas judged got an A; six others received their best score ever.

Together, Appleseed concludes, the marks reflect the government's success this year "in creating the beginnings of an infrastructure of a properly functioning public health system to address the epidemic, something lacking in the District for quite some time." The District has the highest rates of HIV and AIDS in the country.

Not until two weeks ago could the city's HIV/AIDS Administration specify exactly how many residents have been diagnosed with the virus, however. The first HIV figures released in the District and the first update on AIDS cases in seven years showed that almost 12,500 people were known to be infected in 2006 and that more than 80 percent of several thousand new HIV cases since 2001 involved African Americans.

Although the numbers renewed criticism of how poorly officials have fought the virus in the past, they represented a crucial statistical "breakthrough" for which Appleseed awarded an A. The report lists numerous accomplishments on the agency's disease surveillance, from resolving an embarrassing case backlog to working with community groups, laboratories and doctors for better data collection.

J. Channing Wickham of the Washington AIDS Partnership, who helped evaluate Appleseed's review, called the surveillance grade the "most exciting and most important and most deserved." Yet Wickham cautioned, as does the report, that the new HIV information is only a beginning.

"It does not by itself advance the city's response to the epidemic," the report says. Rather, it provides "a much needed new tool for targeting that response."

The HIV/AIDS Administration made strides this year on HIV screening, according to Appleseed, and now has more than four dozen hospitals, clinics, private doctors and nonprofit groups doing routine testing during medical care.

To prevent transmission of the virus, the agency expanded its condom giveaway from 115,000 last year to a projected 1 million this year, and it reacted quickly when complaints surfaced about some of the packaging, Appleseed noted. HIV/AIDS Administration Director Shannon Hader, who took office in mid-October, has pledged to triple the number of condoms given out by 2009.

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