New Data Show D.C. HIV/AIDS Rate High

In the District of Columbia, 3 percent of the population has been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, a rate not seen since what was considered the height of the epidemic in the 1990s in San Francisco. Health officials have attributed the high rate in part to the new routine testing for HIV at all medical visits.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We have two reports this morning that reflect the changing battle against AIDS. In a moment we'll hear about a South American country that is just beginning to come to terms with the disease. First, the District of Columbia. Washington, D.C. released a report yesterday showing that three percent of adults and teens in the city have been diagnosed with HIV-AIDS. That's huge, three percent, one out of every 33 people. The disease in the nation's capital hits African-American men the hardest and it's a problem for heterosexuals as well as men who have sex with men. NPR's Brenda Wilson reports.

BRENDA WILSON: The District of Columbia's HIV-AIDS report reveals what many had long suspected. Washington has a serious HIV epidemic. More than 15,000 people in the district have been diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. That's three percent of the half million people who are 13 or older living in the city. Yesterday, the city found itself compared to countries in West Africa that have lower rates of infection, but many more people infected, to which Mayor Adrian Fenty had this to say.

Mayor ADRIAN FENTY (Washington, D.C.): Yes, we are one of the worst, not only in the region or the country, but in the world. So the only way I know as a human being to solve a problem is to face it head-on.

WILSON: The overwhelming majority of the cases are in the African-American community, which makes up more than half of Washington D.C.'s population. Black men were the hardest hit, but there were as many heterosexuals diagnosed with the disease as men who have sex with men. In a separate survey of heterosexuals in neighborhoods of the city most affected by the epidemic, nearly half of the people who participated didn't know the HIV status of the last person they had sex with. An even greater number didn't use condoms.

Mayor FENTY: No matter what else is causing these statistics to be so high in the District of Columbia, just in this set of findings we know that we've got a lot of work to do as a government to educate, to get information out, and as a community to step up and realize how dangerous we are in our sexual behavior.

WILSON: But there was good news. The city has nearly doubled the number of people who are being tested for HIV. Dr. Shannon Hader, who is the city's 12th HIV-AIDS director in five years, says that testing not only gets people into treatment early, it can slow the spread of the disease.

Dr. SHANNON HADER (HIV-AIDS Director, Washington, D.C.): If you know your status earlier, if you know you're HIV positive, that's actually one of the best prevention interventions there is. Most of the people who transmit HIV don't know that they're infected.

WILSON: As to what has to happen next, Hader says, the city may have to change strategies. Instead of just counseling individuals, she says this severe epidemic calls for getting more condoms, clean needles, and tailored information into hard-hit neighborhoods.

Dr. HADER: I'm not sure we always kept our eye on the ball. And somewhere the message hadn't gotten out enough to everyday people and gotten internalized where you know what, when you have a common disease, it's a common problem. It doesn't take extreme amounts of risk behavior in an area where you have extreme rates of disease to protect yourself.

WILSON: Not all cities report both HIV and AIDS, so a comparison is difficult. Looking at AIDS rates alone, however, D.C. ranks fifth behind San Francisco, New York, Miami, and Fort Lauderdale.

Brenda Wilson, NPR News.

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