For the first time since 1990, the International AIDS Conference is being held in the United States. Thank the lifting of the HIV travel ban by President Obama for that. And there’s no better city to host this important gathering than Washington, D.C. Not because this city is the seat of government for the United States. But because the AIDS epidemic rages here with an intensity rivaled only by sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, to echo the theme of David Brown’s story in Sunday’s Post, the AIDS saga in the District is “a success story.”
The front page of the March 15, 2009, edition of The Post would startle Washingtonians and the world. “At least 3 percent of District residents have HIV or AIDS, a total that far surpasses the 1 percent threshold that constitutes a ‘generalized and severe’ epidemic,” the story began as it quoted from a city health report that was released the next day. More than three years later, the epidemic in the District remains “generalized and severe,” but less so.
According to the latest report from the city’s department of health, “14,465 residents of the District of Columbia or 2.7% of the population is living with HIV.” The study showed a reduction in the number of newly diagnosed HIV cases, “from 853 cases in 2009 to 835 cases in 2010.” But it hastens to add that “there has been a 24% reduction from 1,103 cases in 2006.” There has been a 72 percent drop in new HIV cases among IV drug users. The number of new AIDS cases fell by 32 percent between 2006 and 2010. And no child has been born with HIV in the District since 2009.
Still, there is a limit to the good news. Just as with the national epidemic, African Americans are bearing the brunt of this disease in Washington.Overall, blacks make up 48.4 percent of the population over the age of 12 here, but they account for 75.4 percent of those living with HIV. Black men are 46 percent of the District’s male population, but they account for 68.9 percent of those living with HIV. Black women are 50.5 percent of all females in the District, but are 92.4 percent of the living with HIV cases. And while there was a 31 percent reduction in new HIV diagnoses among whites between 2006 and 2010, there was about a 20 percent increase in such diagnoses among blacks.
The District chalks up its glimmers of good news to vast improvements in how the Department of Health’s HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD and TB Administration tracks HIV/AIDS cases, gets people tested and gets them into care. And it is following the National HIV/AIDS Strategy developed at Obama’s urging and released in 2010.
The president’s plan has three goals: reduce HIV transmission, increase access to care, and reduce HIV-related health disparities. And to achieve that first goal, Obama proposed a radical idea. “Stopping HIV transmission requires that we focus more intently on the groups and communities where the most cases of new infections are occurring,” the president’s strategy notes.
The pernicious path of HIV/AIDS through Washington’s African American community mirrors what’s happening to that community in the United States overall. Break the back of the epidemic there and all the hopeful talk of an “AIDS-free generation” around the world will stand a chance of becoming reality here.