- The Washington Times - Friday, September 27, 2002

When I attended a briefing for black journalists with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in New York this summer, he made a remark that really hit home.
"People around the world need information to protect themselves," Mr. Annan said in response to a question about U.N. efforts to tackle the worldwide HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Folks, particularly in this country, are generally unaware of how the less-heady grass-roots work of varied U.N. agencies applies in their daily lives, Mr. Annan stated.
"True that," as the teens talk, especially when it comes to combatting and eradicating deadly diseases that know no geographic or gender, ethnic or economic borders such as HIV/AIDS.
On that late-July day, the dozen journalists gathered heard a riveting staff briefing replete with grave statistics on the increasing numbers of new cases spreading rapidly not only throughout the African continent, but also in Asia and Eastern Europe. On the heels of the Bush administration's discontinuation of funding for foreign birth-control programs, we were told that much of that money paid for educational campaigns aimed primarily at women who are infected at a rate two to three times higher than men.
Further, 14 million children have been orphaned as a result of the number of AIDS deaths during the past decade.
I listened intently to these lectures presented by Bertil Lindblad, deputy director of UNAIDS, and Hazel De wet, New York liaison officer of UNAIDS, as they rattled off mind-blowing numbers, predicting as many as 68 million additional deaths worldwide, 55 million in Africa alone, by the year 2020. Mr. Lindblad noted the alarming and "astonishing lack of knowledge about AIDS, and transmission, and prevention and sexuality among the young people surveyed."
I came away grateful for their research, their resources and their tireless resolve to deal with what seems an insurmountable public health issue. However, I was reminded that I know where there's a neglected HIV/AIDS epidemic. It doesn't require me to board a train at Union Station or an overseas flight at Washington Dulles International Airport.
Right here in the nation's capital, we have the dubious distinction of having a per-capita infection rate that's 12 times higher than any other place in the country, according to Michael Cover of the Whitman-Walker Clinic. Here, too, women are contracting the disease at a higher rate, primarily as a result of injection drug use.
In the District, 1 in 20 adults is HIV positive. The disease is the third-largest cause of death for residents aged 30 to 44. The rate of AIDS deaths is seven times higher than the national average. City health officials estimate that 40 percent of those infected are intravenous drug users.
While the District's mayor and council are negotiating cuts and tax increases to cover a $323 million shortfall in the fiscal 2003 budget, the House subcommittee with oversight of the District met yesterday for its preliminary approval of the city's appropriations bill even as it awaits the final figures to be presented by Oct. 1.
While D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton called the meeting "the smoothest of my 12 years in Congress," she noted that the measure still contains old riders that prohibit the use of local funds for programs such as a needle exchange designed to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.
No needle-exchange funds are currently on the chopping block because the city has been prohibited primarily by the House from using local funds for this local problem by politicians who don't represent local people.
Earlier this week, A. Cornelius Baker, executive director of Whitman-Walker, sent a letter to the House Appropriations District of Columbia subcommittee asking its members "not to include language in the bill that would restrict the District's ability to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, and other blood-borne diseases, such as Hepatitis B and C, through needle-exchange programs."
But the House left the old language intact. It is not clear whether the issue will be revisited. "This is not a fight we can be prepared to lose unless we're willing to sacrifice the lives of men, women and children in the District of Columbia. The fight isn't over yet," Mrs. Norton said.
Reportedly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, two former surgeons general and a host of other independent researchers have released studies and statements that indicate that needle-exchange programs significantly decrease the spread of HIV-AIDS without increasing drug use.
Even D.C. police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, who has been tough on illegal drug use, has been supportive of the needle exchange-program..
None condones drug use. But let's be realistic. We can turn a blind eye and act as if there is no correlation between intravenous drug use and HIV infection. Or we can attempt to attack the spread of this disease through various life-saving measures, such as needle exchanges while we figure out how to provide addicts with real resources that will help them kick their habits.
Folks need to get beyond their judgmental attitudes, learn the facts and get busy helping to arrest this disease, which is not only a worldwide pandemic, but an epidemic in their own back yards.
One way for local individuals to help while world, national and local politicians haggle, is to join Whitman-Walker's 16th annual AIDS Walk on Oct. 5. Mr. Cover said that the minimum $25 registration fee could pay for one bag of groceries for someone living with HIV/AIDS or an HIV test.
More information on the AIDS Walk can be found at www.aidswalkwashington.org, or by calling 202/332-WALK (9255).


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