Amid Criticism, D.C. Plans Big Effort to Spread Word on AIDS

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

On her drives from one end of the District to the other, Anita Hawkins is struck by the rarity with which she sees billboards or bus stop advertisements telling residents that AIDS is a major health threat in the city.

"I live in D.C., and now I don't see it as visibly as nine years ago," when the virus was killing mostly gay men and the city government mobilized to combat the disease, said Hawkins, an assistant professor at Morgan State University. "We had this big push, and then what happened?"

Hawkins is on to something. Despite evidence showing that advertising increases AIDS awareness, there's almost no marketing to inform District residents of the problem's magnitude.

A report by the city's HIV/AIDS Administration (HAA) says 3 percent of the District's population has HIV and AIDS, the worst prevalence rate in the nation, easily surpassing the 1 percent rate of infection that makes up a severe epidemic.

The problem is probably worse than the report says. Researchers did not count people who are infected but untested. Shannon L. Hader, the HAA's director, estimated that the actual rate is 5 percent.

In the fall, the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice sharply criticized the city's AIDS awareness effort, saying in a report that it lacked the urgency needed to address such a large epidemic. "You should definitely expect more," said Phill Wilson, head of the Black AIDS Institute, which works to reduce infection in black communities.

City officials say a sustained social marketing blitz is coming.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration -- alarmed by research showing that heterosexuals in highly infected areas engage in unprotected sex under the mistaken belief that straight people are not at risk -- committed $500,000 annually for five years for a marketing campaign, Hader said.

But there's doubt over whether HAA can mount a meaningful campaign in the expensive advertising market with that small amount. To be effective, advertising experts say, Hader needs millions more from Fenty (D) or more free public service announcements from television and radio stations, billboard companies and Metro.

"This should not be simply a public-health effort," Hader said. "This should be a community effort helped by the folks who have the space."

It's unclear how aggressively the city has sought public service ads. A spokesman for one local television station, WRC (Channel 4), said no one in the NBC affiliate's advertising division recalls being approached by HAA.

"We feel this is an area where a great deal more needs to be done," said Walter Smith, executive director of D.C. Appleseed, a nonprofit group that addresses civic issues. "We believe it's a leadership issue. I mean Fenty, in part, but there's more than one leader in the city."

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