"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.
| June 24, 2010; 7:09 AM ET
Categories: Capehart | Tags: Jonathan Capehart
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