At an infection rate of 3.2 percent, HIV/AIDS levels in the District exceed the World Health Organization’s classification of an epidemic and rival the rates found in developing countries. The Georgetown community is finding new ways to combat the incurable illness as well as the stigma that has made AIDS a four-letter word.
Treating an Epidemic, Creating a Community
Mary Young, assistant professor of medicine in the infectious diseases division of the Medical Center, serves as the principal investigator of the Women’s Interagency HIV Study. The Georgetown chapter is one of six national sites that together treat over 3,700 infected women.
The program works closely with local women, providing them semi-annual physical exams, questionnaires and blood work. Since forming in 1993, WIHS has cared for nearly 400 women in D.C., most of whom continue to check in with Young every six months.
“We have women who’ve never missed a visit in 18 years,” Young said.
Another program on the Hilltop focuses on infected children and their families. Affiliated with Georgetown University Hospital, the Pediatric AIDS/HIV Clinic works with 40 local families with children infected with the virus. The clinic provides medical examination, education and around-the-clock care.
“We are very hands-on. We take care of them,” said Charlotte Barbey-Morel, chief of pediatric infectious diseases.
Through the program, physicians often develop a close relationship with the kids they treat.
“Some of the patients, I have known them since they were born,” Barbey-Morel said. “We really are a family.”
The families gather with doctors, social workers and staff members during the summer and at an annual Christmas party.
“We try to make it a fun place for them rather than just a place for them to get blood tests,” Barbey-Morel said.
A vast majority of patients were infected with HIV at the time of birth, and growing up with this disease poses innumerable challenges. Barbey-Morel said a big part of care is simply providing a place for these children to discuss the virus openly and learn ways to cope.
“None of them talk about HIV to their friends,” Barbey-Morel said. “[In] some families not even the brother and sister know.”
She added that the stigma these children face is in some ways as bad as the disease.
Overturning the “Death Sentence”
“In certain communities in D.C., you find out that someone has [AIDS] and it’s like a death sentence. No one wants to associate with you,” Greg Germain (COL ’12), president of Grassroot Hoyas, said.
Founded by Georgetown alumni, the Grassroot Project recruits student-athletes at local universities to teach awareness, prevention and community leadership to local middle school students. In conjunction with Grassroot chapters at The George Washington University, American University and Howard University, the project serves 18 area middle schools, focusing attention on students ages 12 to 14 years old — the age at which many at-risk youths become sexually active.
“Our philosophy is to get at the root of the problem,” Germain said. “Hopefully that will teach them at a very young age about the risks that they are taking, so they can be responsible.”
Last Thursday marked World AIDS Day and the middle school students’ graduation from the Grassroot program at the Kennedy Recreation Center. In addition to reviewing the core skills taught in the program, the kids also played on a moon bounce and in an obstacle course.
But Grassroot’s primary educational goal is to foster a more open dialogue.
“We need people to talk about it more, that’s why it’s such a problem. Because of the stigmas attached to it, you don’t tell anyone,” Germain said.
At the beginning of the nine-week program, participants sign a contract that promotes a respectful sharing environment. Germain said that it takes time for the kids to feel comfortable enough to come forward with more personal stories.
“We’ve had a few kids come forward saying, ‘My mom has AIDS,’ or ‘My sister died of AIDS,'” he said. “You’re happy that they opened up, but it’s sad at the same time.”
Germain said that overcoming this stigma is the project’s most powerful tool against the spread of AIDS.
According to Dominique Hall (COL ’12), president of Georgetown AIDS Coalition, the District-wide stigma attached to HIV-infected individuals is present even on the Hilltop.
“The more people that [Georgetown students] meet affected by it, the more we can make progress on the issue,” she said.
To commemorate World AIDS Day, the coalition handed out fliers informing the campus community about the virus’ presence in the District. The coalition also sponsored a forum, “The HIV/AIDS Experience,” led by Maryanne Lachat, professor of “HIV/AIDS: The Impact of the Epidemic,” a class in the School of Nursing and Health Studies.
Overall, Georgetown AIDS Coalition seeks to promote awareness and advocacy for HIV not solely as a global epidemic, but primarily as a local one.
“We’re an international school, so obviously we have a lot of people who are passionate about [the international fight against AIDS],” Hall said. “But when I first joined the group, I thought there needed to be a lot more emphasis on D.C.”
The coalition has teamed up with the medical school’s own coalition to make Georgetown students more aware of the disease in their own backyard. The group works with local non-profit Food and Friends to deliver fresh meals to home-bound patients. Last January the group presented “Unity Live,” an annual concert featuring undergrad a cappella and dance groups, raising over $1,500 for Miriam’s House, a shelter for HIV-positive women.
“That’s the time that campus is the most united. Everyone has a common goal and understanding. It’s the only time where we set aside time for the campus to observe the issue,” Hall said.
Although antiretroviral drugs have made the disease manageable and the media attention that demonized victims of the virus in the 1980s and ’90s has faded, HIV/AIDS still continues to strike at an epidemic rate in the District.
“Today you see people out and living with AIDS, so people think, ‘Oh it’s not really a big deal anymore,'” Hall said. “But for people who are affected, it’s a big deal.”