Has Washington DC become ground zero for the next American AIDS epidemic?

4 Apr

It is frightening for everyone to think of another AIDS epidemic sweeping through America, but it appears as though many have forgotten how incredibly deadly deadly this disease is. While some experts point to the resurgence of AIDS being due to any number of possible factors including an upswing in IV drug use, a younger generation that does not remember the terror of AIDS in the 1980’s and has grown as promiscuous as any generation in recent memory, as well as a a lack of knowledge as to HIV/AIDS. While the problem is on the rise in several industrialized nations again, in the United States it appears that no locality has been hit harder than Washington D.C.

Whatever the reasons may be for the increase, there is no denying that each time the AIDS rate in Washington D.C. is updated it just keeps getting worse. For the sake of background, a “generalized and severe” epidemic must directly impact 1% of the population of a given area. As of March 17, 2009, The rate of AIDS infected persons in D.C. was 3%, or 30 in 1,000 people. According to Shannon L. Hader who who formerly headed the CDC’s HIV?AIDS Prevention team in Zimbabwe before taking over the D.C. post, “Our rates are higher than West Africa. They’re on par with Uganda and some parts of Kenya. We have every mode of transmission, men having sex with men, heterosexual and injected drug use, going up, all on the rise, and we have to deal with them.”

Despite having spent $500 million the past eight years on HIV/AIDS awareness programs and testing alone, it seems as if the initiatives are having no effect on the general population. According to Kim Mills who is the Communication Director for the Whitman Walker Clinic which specifically concentrates the bulk of it’s efforts on HIV/AIDS related concerns, monitoring and condom distribution were not being done and nobody paid attention in general. “Really basic things just weren’t happening.” When D.C.’s Appleseed Center for Law and Justice examined the problem they found massive breakdowns in operations they primarily traced back to and placed on the shoulders of the government. Their findings found massive failures in monitoring and coordination, nearly 50% of the positions within HIV/AIDS programs vacant, with no statistics even reasonably current or accurate as to how many people were HIV or AIDS positive.

Current statistics place 1 person in 20 withing D.C. to be either HIV or AIDS positive with the bulk not even realizing it. They place 40% of the blame for the upswing in AIDS infection on dirty needles being shared which goes hand in hand with the higher than average drug problem in D.C. Add that in with a high rate of transmission among the incarcerated, and the growing problem in the age range of 12-18 year old persons engaging in increasingly regular high risk sexual behavior, primarily anal sex, the problem has gone out of control. While the gay population is a factor in this as well, this time around they are not the main group targeted with the spread as they have generally been more vigilant about policing themselves in regards to safe sex since the initial introduction of HIV/AIDS to America in the 80’s. The main genesis of gay related transmission is traced back to those engaged in prostitution.

The question harkens back however to whether Washington D.C. is ground zero for another AIDS epidemic. While nobody wants to be an alarmist, the general impression is that it is. For comparison purposes Miami which was thought to be the worst city in the nation in regards to the prevalence of AIDS positive persons has a positive rate of barely 1%. According to the most recent study condicted by George Washington University in loose conjunction with the CDC, nearly 50% of the people in the areas of D.C. with the highest infection rate admit to having more than one sexual partner in the last year. Only 1 in 3 was aware they were HIV positive, and only 30% used a condom their last sexual encounter.

When you look at the broad picture after seeing all the smaller pieces that make it up it would appear D.C. at the very least has the potential to be considered a ground zero. All the ingredients are there; a higher than usual drug problem, under-funded and staffed health programs, a nearly non-existent HIV/AIDS outreach program, many unknowingly infected persons, and as an international destination the opportunity to spread well beyond it’s borders. While the greatest hope is that the problem is reigned in before that happens, the real fear is that it may already be too late.

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