- The Washington Times - Friday, June 29, 2007

Frightening, isn”t it, that hundreds of thousands of Americans are HIV positive and don’t know it? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 180,000 to 280,000 people are totally unaware that they have HIV/AIDS.

“The figures ought to knock your socks off,” said D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, continuing her crusade to reduce the incidence of the preventable virus among blacks, who now represent 50 percent of the estimated 1million HIV/AIDS cases nationwide.

That number of folks walking around without this knowledge ought to send you to the nearest HIV testing site, similar to the one set up at Metropolitan A.M.E. Church this week by Mrs. Norton and a group of D.C. ministers during National HIV Testing Day.

“If people see a man of the cloth getting tested, then why not them?” said Mrs. Norton, who hopes to remove the stigma of getting tested for the disease.

Just in case you haven”t heard it before, one of the highest rates of new cases in the country is right here in the nation”s capital. And the rate of infection among teens is even double that of adults.

That growing epidemic, especially among black teens, is why local leaders, including Mrs. Norton and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, participated in events to encourage more people beyond the traditionally targeted groups to get tested for the life-altering virus.

“This disease is spreading like wildfire in our communities and gives us pause,” Mrs. Norton said. She was attempting to counter the mistaken myth that HIV/AIDS is solely a homosexual man”s disease. “What are we going to call it now, a black disease? It doesn”t care about race, and it has landed and planted itself in our community.”

However, Mrs. Norton offered an important caution: “This disease is preventable but not if we keep hiding from it.”

National HIV Testing Day originated a decade ago with the Silver Spring-based National Association of People With AIDS. The organization wants people to get tested as a matter of routine medical care. More testing leads to more early detections, and that leads to more early treatments and a lower likelihood of spreading the disease.

Mrs. Norton pointed out that the District was a leader in promoting universal testing, which the CDC now recommends.

On the testing day, Mr. Fenty also announced a three-year initiative to increase by 25 percent the number of teens and young people who know their status, using prevention and education programs in community groups and schools.

“There is no way to defeat this sexually transmitted disease without personal responsibility,” Mrs. Norton said, adding that “it is being carried by average African-Americans.”

Testing is important but so is prevention, said Brenda Rhodes Miller, executive director of the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, which is helping with the city”s efforts to distribute 10,000 condoms.

Her message to teens is that “prevention means don”t have sex, but if you do, protect yourself by using condoms carefully and consistently.” Mrs. Norton“s similar mantra is, “You can stamp it out with personal responsibility by having safe sex, knowing your partner and getting tested.”

The two primary ways HIV/AIDS is transmitted is through intraveneous drug use and unprotected sex, especially with men sleeping secretly with other men, she said.

Last fall, Mrs. Norton was publicly tested for the virus along with members of the Congressional Black Caucus. This is part of an ongoing “search among ourselves for a ‘cure” for the civic and spiritual crisis in the African-American community that allows residents to forego safe sex, pass this disease to spouses and friends, and fear getting tested.” To that end, Mrs. Norton also is sponsoring a series of town hall meeting on AIDS; one last month that focused on black men was standing-room only. Some suggestions coming out of the forums included having clergy become more involved, she said, and for “men to start acting like fathers and families to start acting like families.”

A town hall focused on women — dubbed “Sex in the City: HIV/AIDS, STDs, Relationships and Today”s Woman” — will be held July 16 at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest. One for teens is slated for later this year. Most important, each town hall meeting offers free immediate testing — just a simple swab of the mouth.

The ministers who participated in yesterday”s testing also have agreed to hold awareness programs on the first Sunday of the month, a citywide day of prayer and activating youth ministries to reach young people because, as Mrs. Norton notes, 65 percent of those from the age of 13 to 19 who are infected are black.

“We need the church to drive away the stigma, because the church has reinforced the stigma,” she said.

Of the town hall meetings, Mrs. Norton said, “We are grateful to see residents willing to take the necessary personal responsibility for the elimination of the virus.”

Even so, yesterday Mrs. Norton was hoping that the House would vote to rescind the rider on the District”s budget that prevents the city from using its own funds to pay for needle-exchange programs that have shown success in reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS in other cities.

“This is not a disease like [tuberculosis]; this is a disease that is spread by sexual contact and dirty needles,” she said, “which means we can control it.”

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