D.C. suburbs lag behind city in efforts to fight AIDS, study says

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Suburban governments lag behind the District in efforts to help slow the spread of AIDS even though they are home to nearly half of the Washington area residents infected with the disease, according to a study released Tuesday.

In what is billed as the first look at the scope of HIV/AIDS infection in suburban Washington, the study decries the lack of coordination that it says denies thousands of infected people the medical and support services they need and deserve, "regardless of where they live."

The study calls on local governments to establish standards so that everyone gets tested for HIV during routine medical visits, unless they opt out. The study also suggests that everyone who goes to an emergency room be offered a quick mouth swab to test for the disease.

The study, funded by the Washington AIDS Partnership, shows that 46 percent of the region's more than 17,000 AIDS patients live in the suburbs; 54 percent live in the District.

In addition to those who have AIDS, about 13,000 people in the D.C. area are HIV positive. However, the infection rate in the suburbs is much lower than in the District, where 3 percent of the city's residents have HIV or AIDS -- considered a major epidemic. Men having sex with men is the main mode of transmission in both areas.

"Nobody's really looked at the suburbs," said Emily Gantz McKay, president of Mosaica: The Center for Nonprofit Development and Pluralism, which wrote the study. "There tends to be a big focus on central cities."

The study suggests that the suburbs can do more to fight the disease, including improving sex education in schools, testing for infection in clinics and hospitals, and caring for the sick.

The study was commissioned by the Washington AIDS Partnership, which is an initiative of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers, and Kaiser Permanente. It is a suburban version of a 2005 critique of the District's response to HIV/AIDS.

"We were able to provide a blueprint for action," said Channing Wickham, the partnership's executive director. "We found that to be extremely successful. We are interested in funding next steps."

Wickham said the study was done because "it's alarming when you don't know what you don't know." Although the partnership grants about $1 million a year for HIV/AIDS efforts, few nonprofit groups in Virginia and Maryland apply, Wickham said.

"We're not giving grades, like a report card," he said. "We're trying to provide more information and get people talking."

The jurisdictions in the study were Montgomery, Prince George's, Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties, as well as the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church and Manassas.

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