D.C. backsliding in efforts to fight AIDS, study finds

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 5:22 AM

For the first time in several years, the District is falling behind in its efforts to combat AIDS, according to a report to be released Tuesday.

The advocacy group DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice pointed to a lack of leadership by former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) at the end of his term and said the city's grades declined in three other areas: gathering and tracking data on the illness, managing grants to groups that help people with the disease, and its needle exchange program.

The report called on Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) to use the bully pulpit of the city's top elected official to restore momentum in the fight against a disease that is at epidemic levels in the District. At least 3 percent of Washington residents have HIV or AIDS, a prevalence rate that is the highest for any city in the United States.

In its sixth "report card" on the city's response to the virus, the group noted that this is the first time there has been such backsliding since the group started tracking the District's HIV/AIDS rate in 2005. In previous reports, the District had been making steady and significant improvement in the AIDS fight, according to the group's executive director, Walter Smith.

Although the city's report card was mostly A's and B's, the only way for the city to win the battle on AIDS is for officials to make top grades in all areas over a sustained period, Smith said. "So slippage in key areas is, therefore, doubly troubling to us," he said.

Although Fenty said HIV/AIDS was his top health priority, the group took Fenty to task because "the frequency and focus of the mayor's involvement diminished over time," the report said. "We think that leadership and public engagement must go deeper than appearing at HIV/AIDS-themed events."

When the mayor does not make the issue a top priority, it trickles down to other levels of government and community partners, Smith said.

An assistant to Fenty, an adviser for a Philadelphia-based accounting and consulting firm among other jobs, did not respond to an e-mail or telephone message.

The advocacy group urged Gray to take a visible and substantive role in the fight against AIDS. Gray appointed a new 27-member commission on HIV/AIDS two weeks ago and is scheduled to hold a news conference Tuesday at the group's first meeting. Gray chairs the commission.

A spokesman for Gray said the mayor has made the disease his No. 1 health priority. The commission will focus on the best ways to reduce barriers to treatment and develop policy recommendations for reducing HIV-infection rates, among other issues.

Appleseed's Smith said the commission was a good step, "but the mayor has to use it to make things happen."

Among the top priorities for Gray are ensuring that the District strengthens HIV and sexual education within public schools and charter schools; that the city moves forward on measuring the new rate of infection; and that funding for needle-exchange services is maintained.

Last month, the leading provider of clean needles to drug addicts in the District shut its doors. PreventionWorks had been distributing free needles for more than 12 years, but delays in city funds, high turnover of managers at the nonprofit and dwindling private donations forced it to close. City officials said they plan to redirect money originally intended for the group to two other providers.

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