D.C. health officials and volunteers credit the alliance of government, researchers and community members as the main force for improving the local approach to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the lives of those with the disease.
"We turned the tide of the epidemic in the District of Columbia, frankly, together," said A. Toni Young, executive director for Community Education Group, during a panel at the International AIDS Conference on Wednesday.
While nearly 3 percent of District residents live with HIV, deaths from the virus decreased by nearly half in four years, plummeting from 399 in 2006 to 207 in 2010 Compared to 2006, there was a 24 percent reduction in newly diagnosed HIV cases in 2010.
The 11-person panel outlined recent successes, including increases in funding, research, volunteers and community programs.
Panel members described drastic improvements in the past five years in the District's approach in all aspects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, including testing, prevention and ongoing observation of HIV-positive people. They detailed plans to continue with community partnerships and more research.
Many panelists noted the overall attitude and approach toward HIV/AIDS as lacking in the past.
"The HIV/AIDS epidemic in the District of Columbia was more like turning around the Titanic in the Potomac — that's how awful it was," Ms. Young said. Change came in 2007, she said, when the D.C. government teamed up with the National Institutes of Health to conduct studies on people living with the virus.
Since then, the District has emerged as a vibrant academic community making an important contribution to AIDS research — including 61 research abstracts presented at the conference — said Dr. Gregory Pappas, director of the District's HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD and TB Administration, said.
Ms. Young praised the D.C. Department of Health and academic professionals for bringing together methods to collect data on testing, prevention and demographics of people who are HIV positive. Community-based organizations can utilize that information to do specialized work in their neighborhoods.
For example, the D.C. Center for Aids Research joined with the Health Department to conduct the national HIV behavioral surveillance study. The study focuses on high-risk groups, and data collected includes testing behaviors and use of HIV prevention methods.
This kind of research, panelists said, has been rewarded by the amount of grants nearly tripling. In 2008, D.C. received just eight research grants from NIH. This year, it received 22.
Research methods used when studying the HIV community in D.C. also provide strategies for similar studies in other cities, said Carl W. Dieffenbach, director of the division of AIDS at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
After the presentation, Katitia Pitts, executive director of Calvary Healthcare in Southeast, said she is grateful for the extra data, but she would like to see the Health Department give more recommendations to community providers on how to use the data in their practices.
"That's an area for strong growth ... really bringing the providers to the table and having some hard conversations about what should be the next move," she said.
The District has launched the D.C. Cohort project to collect data on risk factors, treatments, diagnoses and lab results from all consenting HIV-positive outpatients throughout the city, Dr. Andrea Castel said. The project's goal is to identify gaps in care and new areas for research. Eight clinics are participating, studying 3,300 patients. An additional four final sites are expected to be up and running by the end of the year.
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