Washington in Throes of AIDS 'Epidemic'

A new report on the scope of HIV/AIDS in Washington, D.C., shows the disease to be a "modern epidemic," affecting men, women, children, homosexual and heterosexual people in record proportions. Local outreach and advocacy workers like Larry Bryant aren't surprised — they work with the people behind those numbers.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

A report containing the first statistics about HIV in our nation's capital reveals a city with a potential health crisis that crosses gender, race, age and sexual orientation. Among the findings in the District of Columbia Annual HIV/AIDS Epidemiology Report 2007, Washington, D.C. now has the highest rate of AIDS cases in the United States. In '05, the district accounted for nine percent of all pediatric AIDS cases in the entire country. Although African-American residents make up 57 percent of the district's population, blacks account for 81 percent of new reports of HIV cases between '01 and '05. And since 2000, more new cases of HIV were transmitted through heterosexual contact. We'll link to the full report so you can read it yourself.

The mayor of Washington has announced steps to take on the problem from his perch. But then there are those in the ground who've been working and living with these health issues for years. Larry Bryant was diagnosed with HIV 22 years ago. He is the co-chair of the DC Fights Back, a grassroots HIV advocacy group run by people living with HIV and AIDS.

Hi, Larry.

Mr. LARRY BRYANT (Co-chair, the DC Fights Back): Hello. Good morning.

STEWART: More than one news report has referred to this findings as a modern epidemic, and they did so with great surprise. Do you have any theories on what contributed to these wild spread of the virus and the disease?

Mr. BRYANT: It's probably a combination of several things - neglect, misguided efforts into trying to identify an epidemic or misidentifying epidemic as to, you know, limited populations or priority populations - limited finding, limited resources. I mean, all of the above. It's - the fire has been burning for a while and, you know, the D.C. government health department haven't been equipped or haven't had the vision to develop a comprehensive plan to address all the areas where the fire has been burning.

STEWART: So you folks in the grassroots level have been doing quite a bit of work on this for a long time. Now, within your own organization and other organizations trying to address the spread of HIV and AIDS, what's your biggest challenge?

Mr. BRYANT: Biggest challenge is trying to get people to listen.

STEWART: Hmm. Really?

Mr. BRYANT: I mean, the people who hold the big keys, the people who have the M.Ph.s and the Ph.D.s aren't always, I guess, ready to hear solutions or recommendations coming from the people who are sitting in the waiting rooms, the people who are, you know, in the neighborhoods that are hardest hit, the people who are dying. You know, most - the large percentage of the people who have died of AIDS, you know, within a district and across the country have died needlessly, you know, with, again, with misguided resources and interventions that are not aimed at saving the people who most need it.

STEWART: Okay. I'm going to ask a really naive question here.

Mr. BRYANT: Hmm.

STEWART: One of the big issues in this government report is that there's a lack of testing for HIV. Why aren't people being tested?

Mr. BRYANT: Well, I don't know if - there has been a lot of emphasis pushed on testing, especially the last few years. And in recent years, you know, funding for HIV and AIDS services care and services have - have gone down or have been flat-funded. But in relationship to the epidemic rising every year, you're talking about 40,000 new infections ever year for the last, you know, 10, 15 years or so. With the new testing that emphasize - emphasis on testing. I mean, you could even see Trojan commercials that are talking about getting tested.

STEWART: People just don't do it? You think they're just…

Mr. BRYANT: Well, I think…

STEWART: …not engaged in it?

Mr. BRYANT: Well, I think there's two parts to it. One is - first of all, just getting tested doesn't insure safety.

STEWART: Hmm. Hmm.

Mr. BRYANT: You know, there's a lot of confidential and anonymous testing where people are tested and may or may not test positive but there's no record of who they are or where they are. The populations we're talking, you know, that are being most affected, you know, you're talking about large percentage of homeless people - poor, marginalized individuals who don't have a fixed address. You know, how do you keep people in care regardless of their - would they test positive or negative.

STEWART: Sure.

Mr. BRYANT: You can't track people and put them in a place where they can receive the proper care, you know, related to mental health that is, you know, down the line.

STEWART: Larry, what if all people do not take away from this report?

Mr. BRYANT: Well, I'm amazed by the whole kind of surprise of the epidemic, you know? I mean, just in the time that I have been diagnosed, you know, over 9,000 people have died of this disease in the district. You know, the district, you know, like you said earlier, is primarily people of color. You know, you include Hispanic, Asian Americans, you're talking about 75 - close to 80 percent of the total population of people of color. And you don't have to go very far in any direction - particularly in the southeast part of D.C. - to know someone who has died of AIDS or some related illness, someone who, you know, represents the population most affected by the epidemic./

STEWART: Sure. So don't be surprised. It's real and it's in your city if you care to look.

Hey, Larry Bryant, co-chair of DC Fights Back, thanks for spending some time in walking through the story with us.

Mr. BRYANT: Thank you very much.

STEWART: The stirring statistics. Stay with us on the BPP. We're going to talk to a director who's helped bridge the gap between Bollywood and Hollywood -Mira Nair coming up.

Also, we're check out what's on the blog? What you've been saying to us. We'll spit it right back at you on the radio and the Podcast of THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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