- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2006

Why worry about the advent of avian flu when HIV/AIDS is endangering thousands right here, right now, in our families, our offices, our schools and our communities?

You would think with 1 in 20 District residents being infected with HIV, the District’s HIV/AIDS epidemic would warrant an all-out attack.

However, no real sense of urgency exists to eradicate the deadly disease that continues to consume thousands of heterosexual and homosexual men, women and children.

Even so, Walter Smith, executive director of D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice implores District leaders to make HIV/AIDS “a top public health priority.”

Credit D.C. Appleseed — a public-interest group working with lawyers from Hogan and Hartson who donated more than 4,000 hours toward a comprehensive research project on HIV/AIDS in the District — for continuing to sound alarm bells that some finally are beginning to hear, but obviously still not enough.

“Included in leadership is the need for more speaking out at the highest levels, and there needs to be frank talk,” Mr. Smith said yesterday. “At the end of the day, this epidemic is about sex and drugs, and people are unwilling to talk about the causes and what it’s going to take to fix it.”

Yesterday, D.C. Appleseed released a six-month report card grading the progress — or lack thereof — of the dozen recommendations made in their August 2005 report designed to compel District leaders to act as the HIV/AIDS epidemic worsens.

Not a single “A,” as Mr. Smith noted, was awarded.

“Since the release of D.C. Appleseed’s [2005] report, there has been a surge of constructive energy in the District, within and outside the government, devoted to addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Even with that constructive energy, much remains to be done to produce needed results, as the individual grades reflect,” the report card’s introduction says.

That first comprehensive study of the epidemic included nearly 75 recommendations to combat the disease, including better city leadership, coordination, tracking, testing and education. “We’re after results,” Mr. Smith said.

Hoorah.

In the current report card, the District received higher marks for its Web site and grants management as well as rapid testing; low marks for condom distribution and substance-abuse treatment programs; and incomplete marks in HIV data and surveillance staffing.

“Do I think that everybody who should be on high alert is on high alert?” Mr. Smith asked. “We’re probably not there yet, but a lot of people are much more aware now that we have a crisis on our hands and much more needs to be done.”

That caution issued, Mr. Smith had nothing but praise for the appointment of Dr. Marsha Martin to lead the city’s HIV/AIDS administration.

“She gets it, she knows the way to make this work,” he said.

Still, what is needed more than anything to tackle this public pestilence is straight talk about sexual behavior and drug use. HIV/AIDS is a public health problem and should be handled as such. It is imperative to stop the spread of this virus first. Statistics indicate, for example, that fully one-third of patients areinjected drug users.

Preaching and morality politics have their place, particularly in the area of prevention. Nothing beats abstinence. Here we must encourage everyone to make better choices.

But we must also take off the blinders.

“Drug use is going to occur. Sex is going to occur. We’re interested in make sure they occur in as safe a way as possible, and the District government needs to step up to the plate and make this happen,” Mr. Smith said.

That’s why public-awareness campaigns should be enhanced, condom distribution should be increased and the congressional ban on using public dollars for needle-exchange programs should be lifted.

Still, as long as HIV/AIDS patients are stigmatized and homosexuality and bisexuality are taboo topics, particularly in the black community, elected leaders, public health officials and educators, experts and researchers, will not make the mandatory inroads to stop this disease in its tracks.

We must stop sweeping these uncomfortable topics under the rug because of ignorance or intolerance when lives are at stake.

Too many people are dying in the District. The District’s annual rate of new cases is nearly 12 times the national average and is thought now to be the highest of any major U.S. city.

The face of HIV/AIDS, especially in the District, is no longer that of a white, homosexual male. Women are contracting the disease in the District in alarmingly high numbers.

Commend D.C. Appleseed. This critical project requires a high-decibel debate in which city leaders must motivate folks to face the facts honestly and get involved to end this health care crisis.

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