Jun 28 2006

D.C. Kicks Off Anti-HIV Rally

Kickoff Rally Offers Unified Plea: 'Know Your Status'

With postcards, banners, ads and even a rap song, the District opened an offensive against HIV yesterday with a campaign to get more than two-thirds of all residents tested for the virus.

"Know your status" was the message of speakers at a downtown rally at Freedom Plaza. In a city with infection rates among the worst in the country, they emphasized, people need to know their HIV status if progress is to be made stopping transmission, maximizing treatment and defeating the disease.

Several stepped forward to publicly submit to the oral swab that delivers results in 20 minutes. "The time was right today," D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) declared moments after being tested by a city health worker, an experience she described as painless, tasteless and "easier than brushing your teeth."

The campaign's success ultimately will rest with such people as 28-year-old Jenny Ricker, a hotel worker in line at one of the mobile health vans at the event. Ricker said she is "very careful" in her sexual encounters. Yet statistics about the scope of the epidemic in the District had moved her to action. "I was just shocked," she said.

The city is urging hospital emergency rooms, private doctors' offices and community health centers to make HIV screening a routine part of medical exams -- a position the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to take later this year. The CDC estimates that as many as 25 percent of Americans with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, are unaware they are infected.

D.C. officials have purchased 80,000 of the oral tests to distribute free and hope they need to reorder before year's end. Their target population is every resident ages 14 to 84 -- about 400,000 people.

"This is immensely impressive and should be doable," said Kevin De Cock, director of the HIV/AIDS Department at the World Health Organization. The District's initiative will be measured in part by the number of residents reached, the positive diagnoses made and the way those individuals are connected to care -- all of which will be a model for subsequent efforts in other cities, he added.

About 160 people were tested during the occasionally rain-soaked rally, according to a spokeswoman for the Administration for HIV Policy and Programs.

Sharline Miles, 32, usually has a different perspective as an HIV prevention counselor for the AIDS organization Us Helping Us, People Into Living. Yesterday, she was on the other side. "I'm just as nervous as anybody else," she said as she waited for her test.

The next six months will offer public announcements in English and Spanish, in prose and song. The rap is aimed at youth, the exhortation "Do it for love" at pregnant women. "Are you positive about being negative?" one poster asks. "Clear the fear, take the test," advises another.

There was some reminiscing yesterday about lives lost and progress made in the quarter-century since AIDS was first identified. U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), one of the few physicians serving in Congress, recounted delivering his first infected baby 21 years ago. Her mother, infected by a partner, had transmitted the virus to her unborn daughter. Both ultimately died.

"We must remove barriers and end the stigma surrounding HIV testing," Coburn said. "We must, likewise, ensure that those who are diagnosed are provided appropriate treatment and counseling."

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