Spotlight on DC's High AIDS Rate During International Conference

Monday, Jul 23, 2012  |  Updated 10:11 PM EDT
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Some of the world's leading HIV/AIDS researchers are in D.C. for the International AIDS Conference, a presence that's significant in a city with a 3 percent rate of infection.

Derrick Ward

Some of the world's leading HIV/AIDS researchers are in D.C. for the International AIDS Conference, a presence that's significant in a city with a 3 percent rate of infection.

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Some of the world's leading HIV and AIDS researchers are in town for the 19th International AIDS Conference, and its presence in Washington is especially significant as the city struggles with an alarming rate of infection -- 3 percent of adults between the ages of 15 and 49 are living with aids.

At an event for the AIDS Memorial Quilt Sunday, the director of the D.C. Department of Health highlighted some of the progress made in dealing with AIDS.

"In the city, the death rate, the infection rate, from needles, intravenous drug use, have dropped by almost 80 percent," Dr. Mohammad Akhter said.

So while those numbers are encouraging, there are some more numbers from the Centers for Disease Control that are much less encouraging. The CDC say, per capita compared to some third world countries, the AIDS rate is actually higher in D.C.

Similar comparisons have been made for years, despite some innovative and sometimes controversial measures: Condom distribution in schools and the needle exchange.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray says the city's rate is high, but in the ironic calculus that prevails, the number is higher because of other advances.

"Life now is being preserved much longer than it was earlier in this epidemic," he said.

For many at the conference there's a sense that factors beyond medicine come into play.

“There’s powerful research that documents that when people are stably housed they engage in less risky sex behaviors and can adhere and access to treatment,” said Nancy Bernstein with the National AIDS Housing Coalition. “And that's really the key.”

Still, the numbers showing that the AIDS rate in the nation’s capital are similar to those in the most impoverished places on the planet reverberate with those on the ground in the fight against AIDS.

“We now realize that we are the same people,” said Robert Ochai, executive director of AIDS support organization Uganda Limited. “We still have the same passions and feelings, so we need to fight together."

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