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Ending HIV/AIDS in D.C.: A Capital Priority

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I am proud to be involved in the global movement to fight HIV/AIDS through my work with the Accordia Global Health Foundation, which is building healthcare capacity and strengthening academic medical institutions in the heart of Africa to combat HIV/AIDS and other devastating infectious diseases.

But as a longtime neighbor of the District of Columbia, as an American, and as an African-American woman, I've found myself both heartbroken and enraged by the tragedy taking place in our own backyard.

In 2012, for the first time in 22 years, our nation's capital will host the International AIDS Conference. Yet, even as our capital city proudly welcomes more than 20,000 delegates from over 200 countries, we will be unable to escape one brutal fact: Washington, D.C. has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the country, making it the epicenter of the AIDS crisis in the United States.

According to the D.C. Department of Health, over 3 percent of Washingtonians aged 13 and older are living with HIV/AIDS. This rate is higher than in many developing nations, and is three times what the World Health Organization classifies as an epidemic. Among D.C. residents between the ages of 40 and 49, the infection rate soars to 7.4 percent.

More than 70 percent of the infected persons are male, and more than 75 percent are African American, including 92 percent of infected women. Black women in the District are 14 times more likely to be living with HIV/AIDS than white women are. And among young black women -- not just in D.C. but nationwide -- AIDS is the leading cause of death.

Last year, I produced a documentary film called The Other City, which captures the plight of ordinary Washington residents who have battled with HIV/AIDS. On this World AIDS Day, let's take stock of where we are -- and where we need to go. Thirty years since the fight against AIDS began, incredible scientific research and advances in medical care mean more and more people are living, rather than dying, with HIV/AIDS. Still, the District of Columbia reminds us of how much remains to be done.

There are reasons for hope.

According to the D.C. Department of Health, "the number of newly diagnosed HIV/AIDS cases in the District declined by nearly 50 percent from 1,311 in 2007 to 755 in 2009," and "the number of deaths among persons with HIV/AIDS decreased by more than half from 326 in 2005 to 153 in 2009."

As recently as 2005, only 58 percent of HIV/AIDS patients were receiving treatment. In the last year, 75 percent of D.C. patients sought treatment within three months of being diagnosed.

D.C. is expanding a successful program that offers Washington residents free HIV/AIDS testing at DMVs and at an office where people register for Medicaid, food stamps, and other government assistance programs.

The District Government and its community partners have distributed millions of free condoms, and between 2006 and 2010 nearly tripled the number of publicly supported HIV tests.

And D.C.'s needle exchange program has been extremely effective in curbing the spread of HIV/AIDS, not only among intravenous drug users, but also among transgender residents who inject hormone therapy drugs--which makes it doubly distressing that one of the largest programs in the District had to shut down earlier this year, while the remaining organizations that run needle exchange programs are battling to maintain enough funding to serve the increasing numbers of individuals who seek services.

As Washington, D.C. prepares to host next year's International AIDS Conference, we need to more vigilant than ever in raising awareness of this disease, promoting prevention, and ensuring that all patients have access to affordable, comprehensive treatment.

We need to pay particular attention to black women in the District, who are at a terribly high risk of being infected. While men who have sex with men remains the leading cause of transmission among whites and Hispanics in D.C., in the black community, nearly 1 in 3 persons living with HIV/AIDS was infected through heterosexual contact.

Most importantly, we need to continue educating our young people about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, so they can protect themselves from infection and live long, healthy lives.

Let's make public health a public priority, and end this crisis once and for all. The "other city" is America's city. Let's make this great city AIDS-free.