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D.C. in Distress

In Wake of Alarming Stats, Activists Demand D.C. Prioritize AIDS Epidemic

March 19, 2009

Join Bryant today to protest D.C's rising infection rates
Join Bryant today to protest D.C's rising infection rates
On Sunday, the Washington Post reported that more than three percent of people in D.C. are living with HIV and AIDS. At noon today, Campaign to End AIDS affiliate D.C. Fights Back will hold a press conference and protest outside the offices of D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and of the City Council, at 350 Pennsylvania Ave NW, to demand that the D.C. government develop, over the next 40 days, an emergency strategy to tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the district of Columbia.

"The government of the District of Columbia has been hitting the snooze button for way too long," said D.C. Fights Back co-founder Alex Lawson. "We need clear, visible and vocal leadership from the Council and the Mayor. We need to put more money into testing, into treatment, and into programs used to break down the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS."

Lawson was quick to note that he doesn't blame D.C. AIDS czar Shannon Lee Hader. She has taken the AIDS crisis seriously, Lawson said, and is responsible for authorizing the latest surveillance report. Until Hader's arrival in 2007, D.C. didn't have functional surveillance reporting. However, Lawson wants Mayor Adrian Fenty to take a higher-profile role in confronting the epidemic. "We appreciate the mayor has found such a wonderful person to lead the HIV/AIDS institute, but he also needs to take visible and vocal leadership on this issue," Lawson said. "The report itself states that these incidence rates are probably higher than three percent. This is an all-hands-on-deck crisis and emergency."

More than four percent of Blacks in the city are known to have HIV, along with almost two percent of Latinos and 1.4 percent of Whites. Seventy-six percent of the HIV-infected are Black, 70 percent are men and 70 percent are age 40 and older.

Almost 10,000 D.C. residents have died of HIV and AIDS related deaths, since the start of the epidemic. The nation's capital has an HIV infection rate and an AIDS death rate far above the national average and among the highest in the Western Hemisphere.

"This is a historic epidemic here in this city," said Housing Works National Field Organizer Larry Bryant. "This isn't like a bout of malaria that's affecting us during the summer. We've had indecisive leadership. It's not just about passing out condoms. If we don't, as a community, stand up a little stronger, this story about the epidemic is going to be buried and the next pothole story will make the headlines." Bryant is referring to the Mayor's 'Potholepalooza' last week, a pothole-filling campaign that dominated D.C. headlines last week.

Here is the message D.C. Fights Back will be presenting at the press conference today:

This week the District released data showing that 15,120 people, three percent of the District's residents, are believed to be living with HIV/AIDS-and officials suggested the number is likely far higher. Were we a state, Washington, D.C. would rank first in the nation in HIV rates. Were we a country, the District would rank 23rd in the world between Nigeria and Rwanda in HIV rates. Today, DC Fights Back, a diverse network of people living with HIV/AIDS and allies in D.C., demands that D.C. double the HIV/AIDS budget and within 40 days present a clear, specific, emergency plan, with resources attached, be developed to deal with HIV in D.C.

Today, our eyes are wide open. Today, we are present and not just here. Today, we no longer stand idle as our fellow citizens in D.C. and across the nation continue to be attacked. The situation demands a fresh look at old realities. Centuries of racism and discrimination has resulted in racial disparities in every sector. Poverty, unstable housing, unemployment, social rejection and stigma fuel mental illness, drug use/abuse, and HIV. These are the social determinants of health that affect us all -- Black, White, Latino, gay, straight, transgender, immigrant or citizen. We need to unite. We must stop demonizing our brothers and sisters if we are to secure the conditions that promote our health.

It was just a little over two years ago when city leaders were "shocked" and "appalled" to find out that one in 50 D.C. residents was believed to be living with full blown AIDS. The response was a "wake up call" and removal of the Director and some staff of the Department of Health. Our Mayor, our City Council members, and our Public Health officials have issued yet another wake up call. We-who work every day to ensure care for ourselves, our siblings, husbands, wives, partners, friends, lovers, and clients-say "enough." We are not surprised by the data and we will not be silent. We must move past being appalled by the data to develop a real plan -- real strategies to turn this around.

AIDS is not a just a health crisis-it is a political crisis. D.C. is the capital of the wealthiest nation in the world: we will no longer stand by while politicians complain of scarce resources and difficult bureaucracy. If the economic crisis has proved nothing else it has shown that billions of dollars and massive restructuring is possible given the political will: we expect no less for our communities.

Today, our communities are under attack and we will fight back. How can we end the epidemic if our health centers, religious communities, neighborhoods, and media continue to portray those who are positive as bad people? This report shows yet again that centuries of racism and discrimination have resulted in racial disparities in the HIV epidemic-along with those of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, poor educational outcomes, and all of the social determinants of health that drive HIV. How do we make any progress in ending this epidemic when our city's culture allows racism, sexism and homophobia to thrive?

We Demand:

A doubling of the budget for HIV/AIDS, substance abuse, and comprehensive sex education and an emergency plan that identifies the gaps, describes the services needed to fill those gaps and sets time-bound targets, and cites the funding needed versus what is currently available. We demand this by April 29, 2009 when, during AIDS Watch, activists from across the US will come to Capitol Hill. The eyes of the country will be on D.C. demanding answers as to how we are going to move forward. This emergency plan must include:

  1. Universal, proactive voluntary testing and counseling programs to reach all D.C. residents
  2. AIDS treatment for every person in need and programs that ensure continuity of care
  3. Housing for every person on the HIV housing waiting list, ensuring the likely $5.5 million per year needed through a combination of Federal and D.C. funds
  4. Access to high quality substance abuse and mental health treatment as well as expanded harm reduction and clean needle programs to reach all in need
  5. Competent, science-based HIV/AIDS education to reach all students, parents, and seniors
  6. An inclusive, collaborative process to develop a long term, comprehensive plan to end HIV
  7. A campaign to build unity among all residents to fight HIV -- an end to the stigma that blames and attacks people for illness.

Failure is not an option. This is a fight our city cannot afford to lose.

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This article was provided by Housing Works. It is a part of the publication Housing Works AIDS Issues Update. Visit Housing Works' website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
See Also
More HIV Statistics on Mid-Atlantic U.S. States