By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 27, 2006; B01
As many as 25,000 people in the District may have HIV, more than 4 percent of all residents, officials said yesterday in their first public estimate of the dimensions of HIV infection in the nation's capital.
"That's a huge number," stressed Marsha Martin, senior deputy director of the D.C. Administration for HIV Policy and Programs.
Data not only show the District far outpacing other major U.S. cities on the rate of HIV infection but on the incidence of diagnosed AIDS cases. At the close of 2004, the last year for which complete figures are available, 16,165 AIDS cases had been reported in the city since the epidemic began in 1981. Of those, 9,110 people were still living with the disease -- meaning nearly 45 percent had died. Boston, with a similar population, recorded 6,388 AIDS cases.
"This is public issue number one," Health Director Gregg A. Pane told a panel of community, business and health leaders who will be advising the city on a sustained counterattack.
The statistics were presented to the Mayor's Task Force on HIV and AIDS, which met for the first time on the eve of a citywide campaign to encourage all residents from 14 to 84 years of age to know their HIV status. The campaign, which debuts today, will seek to make HIV screening a standard part of medical exams for the 400,000 men, women and teenagers in the target population.
The oral swab that will be the centerpiece of the effort delivers results in 20 minutes with 99.8 percent accuracy.
The statistics released yesterday underscored the campaign's urgency. Administration officials derived the city's HIV calculation by extrapolating from annual estimates of new HIV infections nationally made by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC says as many as a quarter of people who have HIV are unaware they are infected, a pattern the city expects to hold true locally. If the D.C. campaign launches successfully, "if screening penetrates really deep into the community," Martin said, then by December 2,000 residents could learn they have the virus that causes AIDS.
"Not all those persons are going to need clinical services, but all of those people are going to need care," she added.
Routine screening and an executive-level task force were key recommendations made during the past year by the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. The group had studied the city's response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and found it badly wanting, despite the millions of dollars spent on prevention and treatment programs.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) reiterated that point as he swore in the more than two dozen task force members, who include hospital presidents, top officials at the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and the city's hotel and restaurant associations, physicians, AIDS activists and community providers. Several spoke of the challenges ahead, particularly with widespread screening in hospital emergency rooms, private doctors' offices and health centers.
"Until the public campaign gets out there and people understand that when you go to the ER, when you go to a private practitioner's office, you're going to be confronted with the question [of doing a HIV test], there'll be some confusion and apprehension," said Sherman McCoy, chief executive of Howard University Hospital.
What happens after a positive diagnosis is an issue of concern. "Post-testing counseling is absolutely necessary," said Gary Simon, a professor of medicine and an HIV researcher at George Washington University Medical Center.
A quarter-century into the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the campaign that kicks off this morning at Freedom Plaza aims to erase the public stigma of the disease. "We all need to get tested as poster children for this drive," Sharon Baskerville, executive director of the D.C. Primary Care Association, urged her colleagues on the task force.
Apparently they already have. When asked who on the panel knew his or her HIV status, each person at a conference table longer than an 18-wheeler raised a hand.
Including the mayor.
Staff writer Audrey Edwards contributed to this report.