By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009
With many District residents stunned by recent findings that the city's HIV/AIDS infection rate is at epidemic levels, the 23rd annual AIDS Walk Washington attracted the highest turnout in several years, organizers said Saturday.
More than 7,000 participants, ranging from 20-somethings in ball gowns and other festive costumes to senior citizens in T-shirts, strolled or ran the 5-kilometer route along Pennsylvania Avenue NW in the morning, raising nearly $800,000 to benefit the nonprofit Whitman-Walker Clinic and its HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention programs.
Don Blanchon, the clinic's executive director and chief executive, attributed the heightened awareness to publication of a city study in March that found that 3 percent of District residents are infected with HIV -- a higher rate than in West Africa and on par with those in Uganda and parts of Kenya.
"There was a bit of shock and embarrassment and disappointment that we haven't done more in the fight against AIDS," Blanchon said. "So what we've seen in the months since that report has been a renewed sense of commitment -- more people volunteering, more people donating."
"I'm an epidemiologist, and I still find the statistics surprising," said Kathy Bainbridge, 44, who decided to join the timed-run portion of the event with several neighbors.
Many in the crowd also said they had been touched personally by the disease, which has hit the city's African American men particularly hard, infecting nearly 7 percent.
"My uncle passed from it two years ago. I'm here for him," said Tyrea Lonon, 25, an employee of the State Department's congressional travel office who was participating in the walk for the first time.
Despite the solemnity of the cause, Lonon said she felt upbeat. "You feel like at least you're doing something good to help out," she said.
D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who was among several speakers kicking off the event, struck an optimistic note, too. "I really do feel that although our challenges are tough, the city has never been more energized and more mobilized," he said to cheers from the crowd. "I really do feel that we're getting the message out of getting tested and making sure that you use the right type of prevention."
Although the mayor has won praise for restoring competence to the city's HIV/AIDS office and funding programs such as a needle exchange for drug addicts, he has also been criticized for not taking a more public role. And his short speech at the walk was no exception.
"He needed to put a lot more emphasis on prevention," said George Kerr, co-chairman of D.C. Fights Back, an outspoken AIDS advocacy group, shortly after Fenty left the stage. "The mayor talked about getting tested. But he should have gotten tested. He's a city leader, and he needs to be leading by example. He should be talking about HIV/AIDS every day."