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Report Faults District's HIV/AIDS Awareness

Outreach worker Teefari Mallory, left, talks to a client during a stop in the PreventionWorks! van. With her is team leader Reggie Jackson.
Outreach worker Teefari Mallory, left, talks to a client during a stop in the PreventionWorks! van. With her is team leader Reggie Jackson. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
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By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The District government has improved its performance this year in battling the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but the mayor needs to strengthen the city's public awareness campaign to combat one of the nation's highest infection rates, according to a report to be released today by a prominent advocacy group.

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"The District must take aggressive action to address the remaining obstacles to rolling back the epidemic," said the report by the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. "We of course welcome Mayor Fenty's call for HIV/AIDS to be his top health priority, but sustained, highly visible government efforts to broadly raise awareness of the severity of the epidemic have been absent and reflect a lack of urgency."

In its report, the fourth since the advocacy group began tracking the District's HIV/AIDS rate in 2005, it portrays a government that is just beginning to grapple with the scope of the crisis.

It credits the city for making progress in basics such as needle exchange programs, expanded testing and education efforts in the schools.

The District is believed to have the highest rate of new reports of AIDS in the United States and it has one of the highest rates of people living with AIDS among major cities across the country, according to the D.C. Department of Health.

Almost 12,500 people in the District were known to have HIV or AIDS in 2006, the most recent year of statistics available. HIV was spread through heterosexual contact in 37 percent of the cases, compared with 25 percent of the cases attributed to men having sex with men -- the most common mode of transmission nationally.

New reports of AIDS in the District were coming in at the rate of 128 per 100,000, in contrast to 14 cases per 100,000 nationally. One in 50 residents is thought to have the disease.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the District has the highest rate of AIDS among African Americans in the country: 277.5 for every 100,000 people. It also has the highest rate of new cases reported among Hispanics: 109.2 for every 100,000 people.

In the last three years, the Appleseed report said, the government has created a "top-flight" leadership team at the city's HIV/AIDS Administration and it has expanded testing programs in city jails. But it urged Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to embark on a public awareness campaign, particularly in churches, to reduce the stigma associated with the disease.

"One of the things that I'd like to see is Fenty frankly speaking out more on this issue," said Walter Smith, Appleseed's executive director. "A very active mayor could influence the faith-based community, the African American communities, the Latino communities there. It's an issue that a lot people, even now, are afraid to talk about."

One reason HIV has remained pernicious in the District is that most new AIDS cases here are found in older people who may have been spreading the disease for years, according to the Appleseed report.

Although Appleseed praised some of the city's efforts to combat the disease, it is waiting for new statistics to determine whether the efforts have had any impact.


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