Two years ago, the District of Columbia struggled to get a grip on its burgeoning HIV/AIDS cases which had reached pandemic proportions among the heterosexual population, giving the city notoriety as the leading AIDS infected jurisdiction in the nation.
But even more disturbing is that in spite of its concerted efforts to quell the number of new cases, infections among heterosexual black women – particularly those living in the poorest wards in the city, have nearly doubled since 2008.
The good news however, is that in addition to the city showing a dip in the overall number of new AIDS cases in four years coupled with improvements that have gotten infected individuals into care more quickly, 76 percent of infected people received care within three months of diagnosis in 2010.
"The 2011 'HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD and TB Epidemiology Report' is a picture of progress and we try to follow the national HIV/AIDS strategy," Mayor Vincent Gray said on June 20 during a standing-room only press conference at N Street Village in Northwest, where he along with Dr. Mohammad Akhter, director of the D.C. Department of Health and Dr. Gregory Pappas, senior director at the department, shared findings contained in the 96-page study. However, officials said little about how the epidemic has become commonplace among black females.
"It's an initiative that I have been devoted to for a long time," said Gray, 69. "We're treating the whole person and a set of conditions . . . they [can obtain] treatment right away [as opposed to having to] wait months and months."
Nevertheless, with black women in D.C. taking the lead in newly-diagnosed cases, there remains great cause for concern as their numbers are also indicative of growing incidences of infections across the country. Particularly after a study in 2009 of 40 U.S. states and territories showed that 66 percent of women diagnosed with HIV happened to be African American as opposed to 17 percent white, and 14 percent Hispanic.
A Center for Disease Control and Prevention report in 2009 also revealed that when black men accounted for 70 percent of the estimated new HIV infections among all blacks, African-American women living in poverty-stricken areas such as the District's wards 7 and 8, accounted for 90 percent of the estimated new HIV infections among all blacks in the city. That not only means that the number of black women in the District who've contracted HIV has doubled from 6.8 percent over the past four years, but that they most likely represent a minority who have no idea they have been infected.
To that end, D.C. resident Zelphia Turner, who has been HIV positive for 24 years, pleaded with other females to get tested. She also urged those who have tested positive for HIV to take their medications diligently. Turner, whose daughter was born with HIV, said that because of advances in medicines, living with HIV/AIDS is no longer the death sentence it used to be. As a result, she has become committed to helping others deal with their affliction.
"Being that that situation happened to me, I felt that I should get out here and try to help somebody else because somebody helped us get into care," Turner told an attentive audience at the press conference. "When I first got diagnosed, they gave me 10 years and I was panicking . . . I started out working in prevention and outreach programs for needle exchanges and HIV testing and then the whole nine yards." After attending nine months of training, Turner said she was hired for the outreach program, CommonHealth Action in Northwest, which gets HIV-positive individuals into health care.
"When I get notice that people are out of care, I call them. If I get no answer, I send them a letter – or I'll go and knock on their doors," said Turner. "I try to fix some of the barriers that led them out of care and I work with their case workers to get them back to taking their medicines, because if I hadn't been taking my medicines all these years, I might not be standing here. I've seen all three of my children and my grandson grow up."
On the other hand, Deloris Dockery, HIV-positive for 16 years and who runs the highly successful One Conversation project, a public-education AIDS-prevention and community-action campaign of the Hyacinth AIDS Foundation in Newark, N.J., said in an interview on Examiner.com, that she's looking forward to the International AIDS Conference which takes place next month in the District. Dockery noted why it's important for Black Americans to attend and what needs to be done to end the scourge of HIV/AIDS on society.
"We need to identify every single person who is infected by HIV, and we need to get them care," she said, echoing Turner's sentiments. "And 'care' does not necessarily mean putting them on medication – it does mean getting them into [health and social services] care and tracking their disease progression. This is important because if we can suppress viral loads to undetectable levels, we can reduce transmission."
Dockery added that involvement of more of the individuals infected is needed in the whole decision-making process regarding what can be done to stamp out HIV/AIDS. "This can't just be about people creating legislation and making other moves on behalf of people living with HIV," she said. "It has to be done in partnership with those who are affected."
She said that hearing the voices of black women living with HIV in the United States highlights their presence. "Oftentimes we're not heard and we're not seen," she said. "For me that's really important. That's one of the things that I have been fighting for."
The CDC report goes on to state overall, that most black women with HIV contracted the virus through heterosexual sex. More good news for D.C. is that in spite of having 2.7 percent of its total population infected in comparison to December 2010 when there were 14,465 cases of residents diagnosed with HIV, the number of new cases declined last year.
Also, since 2009, there have been no children born with HIV in the District. Gray said that while the number of new AIDS-related cases in the District decreased last year by 32 percent, the number of deaths among individuals who died after 2006 decreased by half – from 399 to 207. He said there was a 24 percent reduction in the number of people diagnosed, and that cases fell last year from 1,103 to 835 cases. In addition, some 4,300 young people were tested in the same time frame for HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Gray also said that the health department distributed five million condoms in 2011. "We know that [the use of condoms] is a great prevention technique," Gray said. "As a result, it's a 10-fold increase from 2007," he said. "There was a point in the city when we were fearful that injection drug use was about to match sexual activity as a cause of transmission of the [HIV] virus."
However, "The number of cases through IV drug use is down to below 100 at this stage, based on the most recent data that we have." Akhter said "it's wonderful" to see the strides the District has made. "The number of new cases are going down and they've been going down steadily. At this time, there are 835 new cases in the District, but they are 835 cases too many," he said.
Pappas praised the report's findings, insisting that leadership and commitment play a vital role getting the numbers down. But he also alluded to the shift in the District's population, saying that has had a lot to do with a decrease in cases. "We've had fewer deaths [from AIDS], but that number [is] going down," Pappas said. "It's a statistical anomaly . . . that is part of a national trend."