Corporate Coalition Announces Help for District's AIDS Effort

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 25, 2009

A coalition of major corporations announced yesterday that the District is one of three cities in which it will help fight the spread of HIV and AIDS with better marketing, appearances by professional basketball players and financial donations to city health departments.

In an announcement on Capitol Hill at its annual conference, the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria -- comprising Pfizer, the National Basketball Association, Facebook, Nike, Nokia and many others -- said that the District, New York and Oakland, Calif., will be allowed to tap the marketing expertise of its members while shaping campaigns promoting AIDS prevention and treatment.

"I think the ability of our corporate partners to help develop really effective messages, help provide resources to get the message out, contribute talent, air time and media space" is crucial, said John Newsome, a coalition spokesman. "Companies have a reach that far exceeds that of a city administration. Lots of people in the public health community are trying to figure out how to take advantage of text messaging, for example. Well, Facebook and Nokia can certainly help."

The three cities were selected because they are among the 20 with the highest rates of HIV and AIDS in the United States and because the corporate coalition has a relationship with city officials. The coalition plans to expand the effort to other cities eventually.

Shannon Hader, director of the D.C. HIV/AIDS Administration, said the effort can help the District through a "sea change" in its cash-strapped prevention and awareness campaigns.

"I think a lot can be achieved," she said in an interview. "They're investing in a new model of public-private partnership. It's not about money coming into a project. It's about pairing. It's about bringing a technical expertise that adds value to whatever we're doing."

Hader's agency has been criticized by AIDS prevention groups such as the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice for a lack of awareness campaigns.

Some advocates said they are skeptical that the initiative can do much to push back the wave of U.S. infections.

"I think it depends on what exactly the coalition is going to do. Anyone launching major initiatives must tie it to goals and objectives, a statement on how they're going to deliver," said Phill Wilson, director of the Black AIDS Institute, which advocates for prevention and awareness in African American communities. "It's not completely clear to me how we'll evaluate whether they're successful in three years."

Oakland Mayor Ronald Dellums said he is not worried.

"We're all facing budget deficits," Dellums said. "We have to reach out to private partners because we lack the resources to do this alone. In my opinion, HIV is one of the great threats to the human family."

The coalition has been active internationally in countries such as Kenya and Botswana, which have the world's worst AIDS epidemic. Hader, who has worked in Zimbabwe for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the coalition has helped promote awareness in Africa.

The group turned its attention to the United States this year, reaching out to Hader and other urban health directors in January. Two months later, Hader released a report that said the District's HIV-AIDS prevalence rate of 3 percent is the country's worst. She compared the city's rate to some parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Pfizer has committed $1 million over three years to the national effort, which will slightly defray some advertising costs. But mostly the coalition wants to help broaden the message to those who need it: to those at risk of heterosexual transmission, the fastest-rising mode in the city, and to places such as wards 6, 7 and 8, where the infection rate is highest.

How the effort unfolds in the District depends on Hader, said Jack Watters, vice president for medical affairs at Pfizer.

"One of the things we're good at is getting information out there," he said. "What happens when I'm tested? What happens if I'm negative? If positive, how do I get . . . help? There's no reason to ramp up awareness if you can't handle it."

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