HIV/AIDS: A Surging Epidemic in Washington, D.C.

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Ron Edmonds / AP

HIV/AIDS Epidemiology Update 2008
Washington, D.C., Department of Health
82 pages

The Gist:

There are few who still shrug off HIV and AIDS as exotic calamities that befall only specific segments of the world's population. But many of us are probably oblivious to just how badly the virus is ravaging our nation's capital. According to a city report, 3% of Washington, D.C., residents suffer from HIV or AIDS — a figure that ranks as the highest in the nation and far outstrips the 1% benchmark at which a health issue becomes a "generalized and severe" epidemic. The district's HIV/AIDS administration director, Shannon Hader, couched the severity of the problem in stark terms, noting the city's rate of infection surpasses those in West Africa and is "on par with Uganda and some parts of Kenya." The most disquieting part? Things may be getting worse. (See photos of Africa's AIDS crisis.)

Highlight Reel:

1. The report, which documents cases recorded through the end of 2007, provides the first confirmed tally of city residents living with HIV or AIDS. The 15,120 people affected represent a 22% increase from 2006. As grisly as those numbers are, they most likely don't accurately convey the depths of the problem. Drawing from research indicating that from one-third to one-half of infected people are unaware they harbor the virus, the authors conclude that the number of affected residents is "certainly higher."

2. "Nearly every population group and age is experiencing a severe epidemic," the authors write. Only one of the city's eight wards — an affluent neighborhood in northwest D.C. — has a rate of infection below the 1% epidemic threshold.

3. While the disease doesn't discriminate, African Americans are suffering in far greater numbers than other ethnic groups. More than 75% of Washington residents who have contracted the virus are black, with 7% of all black men testing positive. Overall, 4% of African Americans are afflicted. By contrast, 2% of Hispanics and 1% of whites are known to harbor the virus.

4. HIV and AIDS predominantly afflict the middle-aged, with the highest rates of incidence falling among the 40-to-49 (7%) and 50-to-59 age ranges (5%). Overall, 70% of those infected are over age 40.

5. Sex between gay men is the leading mode of transmission, accounting for 37% of active cases. But the report also illustrates that incidence of infection through heterosexual sex and drug use remains high across all ethnic and age groups. Heterosexual sex is the leading mode of transmission among African Americans.

The Lowdown:

D.C.'s health department — which has come under criticism for its response to the problem — has tried to tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic by testing more young people, distributing 1.5 million free condoms and promoting needle-exchange programs. In his remarks on the report's findings, Mayor Adrian Fenty acknowledged that elected officials must shoulder responsibility for educating the public about the scope of the epidemic and its attendant risks. But he also lamented the public's unwillingness to confront the disease. "You have this problem affecting us, and you tell people how serious it is, and it literally goes in one ear and out the other," Fenty told the Washington Post. Let's hope this fresh batch of staggering statistics will shock Washingtonians — and the rest of us — into using proper protection.

The Verdict: Skim.

Read "A Battle in the Bronx over HIV Testing."
Read a 1985 TIME cover story on the AIDS epidemic.