- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 14, 2006

District residents, government and civic leaders met yesterday morning to discuss how to combat the city’s AIDS rate, the fastest-rising in the country.

The forum, in which Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and a panel of HIV-treatment and -education specialists met with a few dozen residents, was the eighth installment of the 14-part Citizens Forum Series, sponsored by The Washington Times.

“This epidemic calls for radical change and engagement of new leadership in the entire community,” Mrs. Norton, a Democrat and the District’s nonvoting congressional representative, said at the forum, held in the Arbor Ballroom of The Times building in Northeast.

“This is no time for us to all look at what we’ve done,” she said. “It’s to look in some larger way at our community and what it takes to engage our communities.”

The District has the highest rate of new AIDS cases in the country, at 179.2 per 100,000 residents, city officials have said.

Almost 10,000 people in the city have the disease, with blacks disproportionately affected. The city did not have enough data to say precisely how many people have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Dr. Gregg A. Pane, the city’s health director, estimates that more than 250,000 residents are unaware they have the disease. AIDS is the leading cause of death for black women between 25 and 34, he said.

As many as 25,000 people in the District may have HIV, more than 4 percent of all residents, according to the city’s first public estimate.

The figures were released in June as the city began a massive HIV-testing campaign with officials hoping to reach 400,000 people.

The HIV figures are based on annual estimates of new HIV infections nationally made by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“This is D.C.’s No. 1 public health problem,” Dr. Pane said.

According to the CDC, the District’s AIDS case rate was 171 per 100,000 persons in 2003, the highest in the country. By comparison, the second-highest was New York, with 35 persons per 100,000 persons.

Mrs. Norton, who last month led 15 members of the Congressional Black Caucus in getting tested publicly for HIV in a mobile health care van, lauded the D.C. government’s call for routine testing. And she expressed frustration with Congress for refusing to spend federal dollars on needle-exchange programs, which have helped lower the rate of HIV in other large U.S. cities.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams organized a task force on HIV and AIDS, which met for the first time on the eve of the campaign.

“One of the most important responses to the crisis is the dialogue,” said Walter Smith, executive director at D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, who moderated the forum. “All of us are the foot soldiers in this battle.”

Marsha Martin, senior deputy director of the D.C. Administration for HIV Policy and Programs, encouraged residents 14 to 84 to get tested for HIV.

“If you’re going to be sexually active, do it with wisdom,” she said. “Prevention of HIV transmission is key and critical. If you don’t have it, don’t get it. If you do have it, find out your status so we can keep you healthy so you don’t progress to an AIDS diagnosis.”

Barbara Chinn, director of the Max Robinson Center at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in the District, said stigmas attached to the disease have kept black communities from thoroughly discussing the issue.

“One of the most serious issues [blacks] face is our unwillingness to speak about it openly and honestly,” she said. “Through that lack of conversation, we are actually helping HIV incubate within our community.”

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