D.C. residents between the ages of 13 and 29 accounted for nearly 50 percent of the city’s new HIV diagnoses from 2008 to 2012, with young black gay males making up a disproportionately high number of the new diagnoses, according to the D.C. Department of Health’s latest statistics.
The District has long been considered one of the epicenters of the nation’s HIV and AIDS epidemic but, in recent years, the city has made great strides in educating the population and reducing the incidence rate. In 2008, 1,180 people were diagnosed with the virus. In 2012, that number dropped to 680 new cases. But D.C. is still far from being in the clear. The World Health Organization defines an epidemic as a disease infecting at least 1 percent of the population and in D.C., with 2.5 percent of the city’s population living with HIV in 2012, it is still very much a serious epidemic.
Now the struggle is to figure out how to connect with a new generation of people who did not live through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 90s — a generation of people not old enough to remember the devastating number of deaths that ripped through D.C. and communities throughout the country.
On Monday, Whitman Walker Health — the District’s largest community-based provider of HIV services, which was at the helm of the city’s fight against the virus decades ago — announced that Metro TeenAIDS (MTA) would become a part of the expansive health center. The 35 or so employees of MTA — a 25-year-old organization that works with the area’s young people to stop incidents of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases — will now officially be employees of Whitman-Walker.
“We already know that the HIV and STI rates in the city are too high in the District and we need to do a lot to bring those rates down,” said Don Blanchon, executive director of Whitman-Walker. “Me, as a 50-year-old man, talking to a 19-year-old about the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s is not really going to resonate with them.”
Both organizations will continue operating out of their current spaces, MTA in Southeast D.C. and Whitman-Walker along 14th street NW. For the young people involved in MTA — the organization estimates it has had contact with 30,000 people under 25 in D.C. — there shouldn’t be too much of a noticeable change. MTA will continue its programs training youth leaders and working with local schools, for instance, and Whitman-Walker will continue providing health services for affected youth.
Through the new partnership, Whitman-Walker will use the established network MTA has in place to more effectively reach young people in the hopes of curtailing HIV and STI rates and provide services to those already infected. MTA, which does not provide medical services, hopes to more easily provide teens access to these health services.
“We invest in youth leadership, we engage young people to change how sexual education is delivered in schools, so it changes the way people think about HIV,” said MTA Executive Director Adam Tenner. “I really think the solution to ending the AIDS epidemic is young people.”
Financially, the organizations says the partnership makes sense. MTA is a smaller organization and if it takes a funding hit with government cuts, it can still survive under the Whitman-Walker umbrella. The two organizations also compete for a limited number of grants, so the arrangement could give both Whitman-Walker and MTA a bigger pool of money to reach younger people.