More than 22,000 people braved a wilting sun yesterday to march in the Whitman-Walker Clinic's 13th annual AIDS Walk, raising somewhere between $1.2 million and $1.5 million for the area's largest provider of services to those suffering from AIDS and HIV infection, organizers said.
The number of participants was down about 21 percent from last year's 28,000--a sign, some AIDS activists fear, of growing complacency about the disease as the number of deaths from it declines.
"I think one of the difficulties every AIDS organization is going through is convincing people the needs are greater now than in [the] past because of breakthroughs in medical treatment," said Michael Cover, spokesman for Whitman-Walker.
"We have a greater number of people needing more services for longer periods of time. . . . That's an incredible burden," he added, noting that the District has nine times the national average of persons living with AIDS.
Cover said the annual walk's most successful year financially was 1997, when it raised $2.2 million. Last year's walk brought in $1.8 million, he said.
Still, yesterday's walk, which organizers estimated drew about 35,000 when unregistered walkers were counted, was an upbeat procession of mostly youthful participants, including homemakers, college students, beauticians, engineers and lawyers.
With District Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) in the lead behind a banner reading "We're Filling the Streets with Hope!" marchers followed a 6.2-mile downtown route that began and ended on the Mall.
Baltimore resident Jodi Handin Goldman was up front. Her sign--"Please sponsor me. I am walking in memory of my brother, Mitchell Lance Handin"--sailed aloft on a hockey stick, because she said her brother, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1996, so loved the game.
She and her husband, Bruce, a veterinarian, had raised $4,470 for the walk "and the checks are still coming in," she said. The average is about $200 per walker, Cover said.
Goldman said too many people assume they cannot contract HIV infection or AIDS. "Everyone assumed my brother was gay," but he contracted AIDS because he had unsafe sex with a woman, she added. "We need to educate our future, our children."
After powerful antiviral drugs known as protease inhibitors became available in 1996, AIDS deaths nationwide dropped 42 percent in 1997 and 20 percent in 1998, federal health officials have said.
The death rate has now leveled off, however, and there are signs that new HIV infections may be rising among young gay men. An estimated 650,000 to 900,000 Americans are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
A contingent of hairdressers and clients from the Class Act Salon in Northwest Washington had raised $435, said salon owner Karen McConnell-Jones, 33.
"We've done it for the last four years. We have people in our family who died of AIDS," said McConnell-Jones, adding that she fears complacency about the disease. "People, like, would just think, 'It's not happening to me.' But it's going to affect everybody."
Rashaun Martin, 21, a junior at Catholic University, said he'd come with about 40 students "to represent the university in support of this important cause." The group had raised about $1,000, he said.
Prior to the event, walkers heard remarks from U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). Noting that 86 percent of the District's AIDS patients are African Americans, Norton said, "Wake up, D.C.! Wake up!"
Asked how much money he'd raised, Mayor Williams replied, "Being out here and supporting Whitman-Walker in every way I can helps them in their fund-raising, and that's why I'm committed to doing that."
CAPTION: Among those leading AIDS Walk are D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), second from left, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), fourth from left, council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D).
CAPTION: Melanie Flossman, of Fairfax, and friend Mark Grello, of the District, join the walk with gear to put some punch in the fight against AIDS.