The District of Columbia’s health department is due to officially release statistics on the status of HIV/AIDS in the nation’s capital and the numbers point to an epidemic, with particularly devastating implications for the city’s Black community. According to published reports, as many as 3% of the city’s population is HIV positive or have the AIDS virus. That number rivals San Francisco around the height of that city’s epidemic seventeen years ago. It is a frightening statistic and one that should propel city officials to take aggressive measures.
The report will show that 2,984 residents per every 100,000 District residents over the age of 12, just over 15,000 people, are HIV positive or have AIDS. It represents a 22 percent increase in cases since the end of 2000. Black men are the most susceptible, with an infection rate close to 7 percent. According to data in the report, almost 1 in 10 District residents between the ages of 40 and 49 has the disease.
In addition, the report reveals more than 4 percent of the city’s Black population is known to have HIV, and 75 percent of the HIV infected are Black, 70 percent are men and 70 percent are age 40 and older. Heterosexual sex was the principal mode of transmission for Blacks at 33 percent. Black women represent over one quarter of HIV cases in Washington, D.C. and 58 percent were infected through heterosexual sex. About a quarter of Black women were infected through drug use. The majority of the people surveyed for the study were poor, earning less than $10,000 annually and 43 percent were unemployed.
These are alarming numbers and point to a need for an all out public education campaign to prevent the further spread of the AIDS virus among District residents. No doubt, there are a number of factors at play driving this epidemic; including the continued “shame” that is associated with being HIV-positive in the Black community, largely driven by how the disease has been cast by many religious leaders, the lack of understanding of the need to practice “safe” sex, engagements with multiple partners in a small circle of highly susceptible individuals, and poverty and ignorance. The issue of multiple partners was directly tied to the areas of the city with the highest prevalence of AIDS as survey participants indicated having had overlapping sexual partners within the past 12 months.
Congress also needs to be supportive of the city’s leadership. It was just last year when a federal ban on the use of local tax dollars for a needle exchange program was lifted after being in place for a decade. The ban likely contributed to the city’s inability to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS among drug users. The Black faith community also needs to be proactive in the city’s efforts to combat HIV/AIDS. Without casting judgment, the Black church could be a powerful institution in the fight to save the Black community. For too long, messages from the pulpit have turned far too many who need help away, and made the discussion of the disease taboo.
The District of Columbia is not alone in the category of cities that have been hit hard by HIV/AIDS. The disease is a public health crisis that is taking its toll on the Black community across the country - specifically on Black women. The experience in Washington D.C. only serves to bring renewed attention to a problem that is now squarely focused on Black Americans. We are hopeful that District Mayor Adrian Fenty and the city’s health department are prepared to tackle this problem head-on. It has major implications for the city and nation if the seat of our federal government is unable to reverse this trend.