10/24/2011 04:23 pm ET | Updated Dec 24, 2011

More Education and Awareness Needed in Fight Against HIV/AIDS

The District's continuing fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic remains a central pillar of our public health infrastructure, and with good reason. According to the District's HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD, and TB Epidemiological Report 2010, the city's infection rate stands at 3.2%. Fortunately, by implementing evidence-based programs and policies, the District is effectively confronting the disease for the first time in a generation. This year's epidemiological report showed a greater than 50 percent reduction in deaths among people infected with the disease over the last four years. It also showed a nearly equal reduction in the percentage of individuals transitioning from HIV to AIDS.

Since becoming chairman of the Committee on Health in 2005, I have worked to implement aggressive and innovative policies. In that time, the District has nearly tripled the number of publicly supported HIV tests per year -- from 40,000 to 110,000 -- and in the last year alone distributed four million condoms. Hundreds of thousands of used intravenous needles have been removed from the streets and we have implemented a nationally recognized advertising and social media campaign to go along with our revamped school curriculum.

Education and awareness are critical components of the District's effective response. It is for this reason that I recently introduced two pieces of legislation that will grow the District's collective knowledge base regarding the epidemic. "The Senior HIV/AIDS Education and Outreach Program Establishment Act of 2011" and "The HIV/AIDS Continuing Medical Education Amendment Act of 2011" will ensure critical HIV prevention information gets into the hands of people who need it the most.

The "Senior HIV/AIDS Education and Outreach Program Establishment Act of 2011" will confront the increasing threat of HIV/AIDS to the District's senior citizens. According to recent data, the proportion of new AIDS cases nationally among adults ages 50 and older has increased from 19.2% in 2005 to 26.4% in 2009. In the District, 7.4% of residents 40-49 years of age and 6.1% of residents 50-59 years of age are living with HIV/AIDS. Older adults are more likely to get tested later than the rest of the population resulting in diagnosis and treatment delays. A U.S. Administration on Aging study revealed that only about a third of older men and just a fifth of older women surveyed had discussed sex with a doctor since the age of 50. That is simply unacceptable given current public health realities.

The legislation directs the Department of Health to recruit and train senior citizens to be peer educators on HIV/AIDS, engage service providers on issues related to seniors and the disease, and develop a curriculum focused on the senior population. Providing appropriate HIV information to this population requires certain sensitivities. Enlisting older residents to inform their fellow seniors will help fill an important information gap in the District's education and risk reduction efforts and provide desperately needed information on HIV transmission to a demographic increasingly at risk.

Educating seniors on issues related to HIV prevention is not enough on its own. We must take action to ensure that all residents have the tools they need to make smarter decisions about their health and well-being. For this reason, I introduced the "HIV/AIDS Continuing Medical Education Amendment Act of 2011." The bill calls for HIV/AIDS-specific coursework as part of continuing education standards for medical professionals including physicians, physician assistants, and nurses. By ensuring our healthcare professionals have the most up-to-date information on HIV prevention and treatment efforts, along with an understanding of how the disease impacts different communities throughout the District, the legislation would improve communication between health professionals and their patients and would break down barriers to care. Greater dialogue regarding HIV/AIDS between medical professionals and their patients can increase HIV/AIDS testing which helps prevent new infections and connects positive-testing individuals with treatment faster.

The bill complements existing efforts to provide District medical professionals with a greater understanding of HIV and AIDS. At my request, the District's academic detailing program --which delivers high quality, unbiased pharmaceutical information to physicians -- recently created a training program for physicians on HIV/AIDS medications. The continuing education requirements contained in the bill expand this training beyond medications and beyond physicians. Our physicians, physician assistants, and nurses are the first line of identification and screening. The legislation would further empower those on the frontlines to more fully and capably respond to the killer disease.

Next July, the District will host the International AIDS Society's annual conference: AIDS 2012. It will be the first time in over twenty years that the world's preeminent gathering on the epidemic is held in the United States. Over 20,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries are expected to attend the conference with close to 2,000 journalists covering the event. Not only is AIDS 2012 an opportunity for people to collaborate and share ideas, but it is also an excellent opportunity for the District to showcase its HIV/AIDS policies. The "Senior HIV/AIDS Education and Outreach Program Establishment Act of 2011" and the "HIV/AIDS Continuing Medical Education Amendment Act of 2011" can stand as two more examples of the District's innovative and effective response.