Although HIV rates in Washington, D.C., have steadily declined since 2008, above-average rates continue to persist throughout the District, leading to renewed efforts by city officials and organizations to fight the disease.
According to the most recent survey conducted by the D.C. Department of Health, new diagnoses fell to 497 in 2013 from 680 new cases in 2012. There were 722 reported incidents in 2011 and 1,180 in 2008.
Jeffrey Crowley, Program Director of the National HIV/AIDS Initiative at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, attributed the decline in new diagnoses to the D.C. government’s efforts to promote HIV testing and screening. He explained that the government has also taken extra steps to make insurance available, even before the Affordable Care Act went into effect.
“This is a moment of opportunity for making major progress in responding to HIV,” Crowley wrote in an email. “We have been following a national strategy that calls for collective action to more effectively deploy a variety of prevention approaches, building on the Affordable Care Act to get all people with HIV in care and on treatment and working to ensure that harmful laws that criminalize HIV are eliminated and that we remove barriers that keep people from accessing prevention and care services. We are making real progress, but we need all Americans to remain actively engaged in this effort.”
The National Institute of Health’s “Test and Treat” model has further shown the effectiveness of the current technologies existing to treat HIV.
However, the most recent D.C. Department of Health reports estimate the number of D.C. citizens living with HIV to be 16,594 people, 72.9 percent of them male and 27.1 percent female. The most recent data from summer 2014 indicates 2.5 percent of the city’s population living with HIV, a rate that falls within the World Health Organization’s definition of a “severe epidemic.”
To lower these rates, city organizations have forged new programs. The most prominent development was the Feb. 2 announcement of a partnership between the Whitman-Walker Health Center, a community health center in Ward 2 that served 1,800 youths in 2014, and Metro TeenAIDS, the only nonprofit organization in the District focusing on combating the disease in the youth population.
The partnership aims to tackle the root of the HIV epidemic in youth and provide treatment that ranges from mental health counseling to a larger scope of testing services.
“We know that nationally, the only group that has seen an actual increase in HIV is young gay and bisexual men. Therefore, we know that addressing HIV among youth is critically important and is going to be a main focus. We are going to continue to have that focus,” Whitman-Walker spokesperson Shawn Jain said.
Jain explained that the organizations will target the most marginalized communities in D.C. by combining the broad base of health care from Whitman-Walker Health Center with the youth focus of Metro TeenAIDS.
“Now that Metro TeenAIDS programs will continue under Whitman-Walker, we will be able to add wrap-around services and greater offerings to youth including medical care, substance abuse services and mental health services,” Jain said. “We know that you can’t just address HIV with condoms and testing. It requires a full-throttled effort that addresses issues in various areas of people’s lives.”
MTA Executive Director Adam Tenner echoed Jain, noting the well-rounded health care that the partnership will be able to provide.
“Over the last several years we have been developing a broader agenda to address the health and wellness needs for young people in our community,” Tenner said in a press release. “HIV continues to be a critical health issue for teens. But the epidemic has evolved and we believe that we need a more holistic approach.”
A primary focus of the partnership will be fighting the persistent negative perceptions surrounding the disease.
“Addressing stigma is going to be a huge part of it — the stigma around testing, around disclosing one’s HIV status, around seeking out treatment. This continues to be a barrier. The development of new biomedical interventions that can help prevent HIV is going to become critically important but we need to get people there,” Jain said.
While the Whitman-Walker Institute has not set any particular goals, such as New York’s plan to end HIV by 2020, they welcome concrete plans from the government, though Jain acknowledged that eradication will be difficult.
“We know that if everyone were to get into treatment, who are HIV positive and know their status, we would be able to stop the epidemic,” Jain said. “We also know that is incredibly hard if not impossible to achieve so we keep that as a goal, but at the same time we really hope to find other interventions that will help bring down the rate of new diagnoses.”