By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
The District has made strides in combating AIDS by increasing the number of tests, funding needle exchange programs and producing detailed data on the number of people who have the disease, a new report says.
Despite those steps, the District still has the worst HIV and AIDS rate in the nation, according to the report released Wednesday by the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.
In its fifth "Report Card" on the city's response to the virus, D.C. Appleseed gave the District high marks for being one of three cities that administer the most HIV tests, for coordinating government agencies responding to the epidemic and for strengthening the team in the HIV/AIDS Administration (HAA), which gathers data on the illness.
The government also received above-average grades for leadership, managing grants to groups that help people with the illness, and monitoring the effectiveness of those programs.
But the report took Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to task for failing to give the disease more visibility. "While Mayor Fenty and his administration deserve recognition for the continued support of . . . numerous HAA initiatives, his public appearances and statements about the epidemic have fallen short of his enthusiasm for action inside the government," it said.
Appleseed officials said the city could do more.
"There is no question that the D.C. government is doing a lot right now to address this epidemic," said executive director Walter Smith. "At the same time, we know what the numbers are, and we are trying to offer fair grades of the city's performance measured against what more could and should be done."
The city cannot regress to the poor leadership and frequent firings of directors that created a revolving door in the top office at HAA, the report said. The District's AIDS epidemic "is a tragic outgrowth of the failures of the private and public community leadership to address the epidemic effectively, for about 20 years."
Moving forward, HAA should assess whether the improvements are reducing the spread of the virus, it said. A report in March said at least 3 percent of District residents have HIV or AIDS, but it did not provide the number of new infections, which is key to determining whether the city is making progress.
Overall, the report card was an improvement from the previous four. In the first, the city racked up mostly B and C grades, along with two Ds for substance abuse treatment and condom distribution. Those grades improved to B in the current report. HIV testing in general and among jail inmates received grades of A.
"This is a very solid report that accurately reflects the evolution of the city's ability to respond to the epidemic," said D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the health committee. "I don't want to suggest that we're at nirvana in terms of our response. We are not. But . . . these grades are an enormous turnaround."
The report praised Fenty's selection of HAA Director Shannon Hader, who is highly regarded by city officials and AIDS activists.
The D.C. schools received the report's lowest grade, a C-plus, for failing to implement a comprehensive HIV/AIDS curriculum, including training teachers and working with community groups, four years after a program was proposed.
"On numerous occasions, solid commitments to move forward with health standards and a health curriculum were not followed by action," the report said.