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"Other people" get HIV/AIDS

Just as the Obama administration puts the finishing touches on a national HIV/AIDS strategy, a powerful movie on the film festival circuit shows in heart-breaking detail why such a plan is long overdue. "The Other City," made by filmmaker Susan Koch and former Post writer Jose Antonio Vargas and produced by billionaire Sheila Johnson, puts faces on multiple aspects of the epidemic by focusing on the one raging right here in Washington.

"The Other City" sprang from a stunning March, 2009 front-page story by Vargas -- "At Least 3 Percent of D.C. Residents Have HIV or AIDS, City Study Finds; Rate Up 22% From 2006." The 22 percent increase is devastating. But the tragedy lies in the 3 percent statistic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an epidemic is "generalized and severe" when 1 percent of the population is affected. The HIV/AIDS epidemic in the nation's capital is on par with that in many sub-Saharan African countries.

The three modes of transmission in Washington are heterosexual sex, intravenous (IV) drug use and men who have sex with men. Now, did you notice the two scariest words of that Post headline -- "at least"? The report, which relies on data reported in 2007, is based on those who were tested. They know their status. But there are many more who don't. Ignorance of one's status combined with risky behavior and a belief that HIV/AIDS affects other people is how the disease gained a foothold in every socio-economic demographic in the District.

Nevertheless, no group has been more hard hit than African Americans. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, "AIDS is now the leading cause of death for African-American women ages 25–34" in the United States. Now, look at these data points from Washington's 2009 Epidemiology Update.

The highest burden of disease is among black males with 7.1% of all black males in the District living with HIV/AIDS.

More than one in five (21.4%) persons living with HIV/AIDS in the District are black MSM.

Among persons living with HIV/AIDS, 72.0% are men, 75.6% black and 71.3% are currently over the age of 40.

Overall, blacks account for 79.8% of all living AIDS cases, and black men and women accounted for 75.2% and 92.3% of persons living with AIDS at the end of 2008, respectively.

There were 1,318 deaths among persons diagnosed with HIV/AIDS between 2004 and 2007, with 87.1% of deaths among persons with HIV/AIDS being among blacks.

I almost hesitated to highlight these numbers for fear of feeding what Vargas calls the "Oh, AIDS has nothing to do with me.... It's 'the other people' who get it, anyway" attitude. But to give in to that fear is to aid and abet this epidemic's grueling progression. This disease needs to be talked about and understood to be the indiscriminate killer that it is. Shying away from it because the topic leads to uncomfortable discussions is taking politeness to an extreme. We need to break through politeness and stigma to save lives. My prayer is that President Obama's impending national strategy for HIV/AIDS will finally give people a reason, the tools and the comfort to do it.

By Jonathan Capehart  | June 24, 2010; 7:09 AM ET
Categories:  Capehart  | Tags:  Jonathan Capehart  
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Thank you for this. I could not agree more.

Posted by: hillgirl8024 | June 24, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

Rates of new HIV infections continue to rise among my neighbors. Too many DC folks still engage in intimacy characterized by multiple overlapping sexual partners (concurrency). Like they/we ain't heard.... They sleep around with folks who also sleep around. They hook up with people who hook up--and worse than that, they are unaware of their HIV status and they sleep with people who don't know their HIV status. (It only takes a swab in the cheek)

Survey findings demonstrate that there is a declining concern among African Americans about the HIV epidemic. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that the percentage of Black people under age 65 who reported recent testing remained stable for 12 years between October 1997 (39 percent) and March 2009 (40 percent). CDC found that HIV testing rates among Blacks may have actually DECLINED between 1999 and 2007. What???

In a 2007 study of heterosexuals in Washington on the DOH website, using data from the CDC’s National HIV Behavioral Surveillance (NHBS), nearly 50 percent of people surveyed in the hardest-hit areas of town reported having overlapping sexual partners in the last 12 months.

The majority of newly infected D.C. residents contracted HIV through heterosexual sex. Concurrency -overlapping lovers-- has clearly contributed to the spread of HIV in the District. Furthermore, women were the hardest hit, with 6.3% prevalence of HIV infection among females compared to 3.9% among males. The study concluded that “females must be considered an increasingly important group in the shaping of local programmatic responses to the epidemic.”

We look for sexual partners in a pool full of people who don't know their status. Black people MUST do a LOT MORE than everyone else to stop spreading HIV, because it is easier to get for us since we swim in a different pool form YT people. This means condoms ALL THE TIME..not just with some get tested OFTEN. This means staying faithful and not jumping from bed to bed..tell yr children and people you care about. We have got to do more, because we have already done more, y'know

Posted by: MDC1956 | June 24, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

"I almost hesitated to highlight these numbers for fear of feeding what Vargas calls the "Oh, AIDS has nothing to do with me.... It's 'the other people' who get it, anyway" attitude."

What 'other people', Capehart? Americans are sick and are dying. Anything beyond that is detail.

It doesn't matter to me whether they live in or out of the District. (I don't live anywhere near Washington.) Black or white. What difference does it make? Southerner, eastern 'elite' (so-called), rancher, farmer, fisherman. Asian, Jew, WASP. They are all Americans.

If we have no concern for our fellow Americans, then the US has ceased to have a working society.

Posted by: darling_ailie | June 24, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

It's pretty easy to not get AIDs. All it takes is self discipline. Don't share needles. Don't sleep with people that sleep with other people. In other words. Don't do drugs and stay in mononagamous relationships with people that have been tested.

Posted by: BradG | June 24, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

This is a very critical issue for America, especially many Americans who happen to be black. We have been dealing with this disease already for more than a generation. Its impact is now affecting another generation and possibly soon a third and fourth. Open discussion about the facts of transmission, encouragement to know yours and your partner's virus status, correct information about transmission routes and responsibilites for preevntion, and available maintenance treatments is critical to making a turn around. It is not too late to turn this situation around before in has a very long negative impact on American citizens, not just those who are black.

Congrats to Sheila Johnson for stepping up to support this critical health issue. She has set a great example of social responsibility. Hopefully, President Obama's plan will be very clear of what all America has to do to help change the outcomes of this disease across all socio-economic, ethnic groups and other people, whoever "they" maybe.

Posted by: SlimNYC | June 24, 2010 4:49 PM | Report abuse

BradG - Do your easy rules also include? a.) don't sleep with someone you believe is monogomous with you but is sleeping around behind your back b.) don't get raped by someone who is HIV+ c.) don't be someone underaged who is taken advantage by an adult who should know better.

Life is not simple. Some people make mistakes or use poor judgement. Some people are irresponsible. Some people are victims of crimes, lies, and/or cheating spouses. No matter the circumstances, though, no one deserves to be HIV+ and all people with HIV should be treated with respect, just like everyone else.

Posted by: tjs_dc | June 24, 2010 5:16 PM | Report abuse

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