Tuesday, March 17, 2009

International Tragedy: DC's Rising HIV Rate

I arrived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, last night; I'm here for two weeks on a work assignment. Ever the news junkie, I woke up this morning and sought out news stations to watch. I settled on Al Jazeera TV. As I have come to expect from 24 hour news, everything is wrong with the world: the Chinese government reported a bombing Tibet; a riot in Sierra Leone turned violent, with some women raped and at least 20 people killed; the opposition leader in Madagascar is scheduled to take over the Presidential Palace and name himself president; Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has ordered aid agencies out of his country by year's end; AIG is giving my tax dollars away to undeserving executives. All of these I've come to expect.

What I did not expect was a feature story on DC's HIV rate on international television. The BBC has a headline story on it as well. The district's HIV rate hit 3 percent recently and has risen 22 percent since 2006. One person interviewed for the story remarked on the irony that the "capital of the free world" has a growing HIV rate higher than some parts of Africa. In Sunday's Washington Post, the director of DC's HIV/AIDS administration said the rates are higher than West Africa's and on par with Uganda and some parts of Kenya.

Quite frankly, parallels to Africa are unwarranted. In fact, I think they are a distraction. The fact that HIV rates in the District of Columbia has risen by 22 percent in 3 years is in itself the problem. It's an indication that we are not addressing the crisis or perhaps do not yet know how to address the crisis. It is troubling that rates in all three most "vulnerable" populations are on the rise: men having sex with men (MSM), heterosexual couples and injection drug users.

The district's (and the nation's) political and public health leaders need to wake up and address the sources of this problem: poverty, inadequate HIV education, late testing, etc, etc. The fate of DC's residents is resting on this.

By Kehinde Togun

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