AIDS Rate Soars in Nation's Capital

D.C. officials to release report showing 3 percent of city population has virus.

March 15, 2009, 6:28 PM

March 15, 2009— -- Washington is the nation's capital, home to the President and his family, and a tourist haven -- but it has the highest rate of HIV-AIDS in the country.

City officials are expected to release a report Monday showing 3 percent of the city's general population has been infected with the virus. It's the first time the city has done a comprehensive analysis of infection rates in the district.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the definition of an epidemic is 1 percent of the population. Washington's rate of infection with HIV-AIDS is three times that.

According to the report by the DC HIV/AIDS Administration, almost 1 in 10 of the city's residents between the ages of 40 and 49 has the virus. It spreads three ways -- through heterosexual sex, homosexual sex and through intraveneous drug use.

"D.C. is unique in that all of those three transmission rates is high, and they're all in double digits," said Jose Vargas, a Washington Post reporter working on a documentary about AIDS in Washington.

D.C. also has high concentrations of the groups most at risk -- African Americans and gay men. But the report drives home the point that the virus is cutting across all demographics, increasing 22 percent from 2006, with epidemic proportions in all but one of the city's eight neighborhoods.

Health officials blame the high rates on individual behaviors, but also on the city's haphazard response to the crisis.

Shannon Hader is the 12th director of the city's HIV/AIDS Administration and the third in five years. In a cover story for the Washington Post today she tried to put the rates into context.

"Our rates are higher than West Africa," Hader said. "They're on par with Uganda and some parts of Kenya."

Vargas has been studying the city's HIV-AIDS rates for the past six years.

"This didn't just happen like that," he said. "We didn't just wake up and all of a sudden it's here."

Rates Rival San Francisco's at Height of Epidemic

The only other city that has ever come close to Washington, D.C.'s current rate of infection was San Francisco in the 1990s, during the height of the epidemic. At that time, San Francisco had a 4 percent rate of infection.

But today, almost 30 years since the epidemic broke out in the United States, there's still a very real stigma attached to the disease.

Health officials in Washington say that stigma keeps people from getting tested, so the actual rates of HIV-AIDS in the nation's capital is probably much higher.

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