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Whitman-Walker Health Fair and Vigil Marks World AIDS Day

by Rachel  Breitman
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Nov 28, 2012

As Washington, D.C. plans for its annual commemoration of World AIDS Day, the city remains thoughtful about the complicated work yet to be done to achieve the goals of reducing infections to zero.

Just a few months after the city hosted the XIX International AIDS Conference, Washington's local elected leaders, public health officials and nonprofits will view this World AIDS Day as a chance to educate the population, promote testing opportunities, and help individuals living with HIV stay healthy.

The city will mark the day with new healthcare policies, food drives, and a candlelight vigil. Whitman-Walker Health, a non-profit community health center, will host its annual vigil at Dupont Circle on World AIDS Day, complete with a mobile unit offering onsite HIV exams.

"My wish is that the year 2012 may be remembered as the beginning of the end of the HIV/AIDS epidemic," said Whitman-Walker Health Executive Director Don Blanchon. "Advances in medical care announced in 2012 now give us hope that we may, very soon, see the first AIDS-free generation in decades."

But in a city with the highest infection rate, a lot needs to change to accomplish this goal, said Dr. Gregory Pappas, Senior Deputy Director of HIV/AIDS and other STDs for the city's Department of Health.

"We have definitely made progress, but we have a serious problem, with two to three people getting infected in this city every day," noted Pappas. "The disease is not going away soon."

Pappas has already helped develop programs for African-American doctors to work with African-American men in the city around HIV-testing, needle exchange policies for injection drug users, and free condom programs for incarcerated men and former convicts.

The week of World AIDS Day, he will be speaking about his future plans for the city in a talk titled "New Responses to the DC HIV/AIDS Epidemic" at George Washington University. He will outline new programs planned to help HIV-positive individuals stay in care, and new initiatives for the city like medical multi-service centers in accordance with the Affordable Care Act.

"A lot of people who need to be on treatment for HIV aren’t on it, and a lot of people have pills but aren’t taking them regularly," adds Pappas, who notes that in Washington, D.C., the greatest source of transmission is unprotected sex among people with multiple sexual partners. "Even though people are still living longer, we still have people dying, and we haven’t gotten to zero on that."

The city already offers free walk-in clinics for testing in various locations, from social service agencies to the Department of Motor Vehicles. In honor of World AIDS Day, Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center will also offer free testing.

Meanwhile, Mayor Vincent Gray will be marking the day by trying to help people in poverty live healthier through the second annual D.C. Government World AIDS Day Food Drive to benefit Food & Friends, a nonprofit that provides free, home-delivered meals and groceries to people living with HIV and other life-threatening diseases. Gray is particularly aware of how far the city has come to reduce infections, since he put into place the city’s first five-year strategic plan for HIV when he was the director of the D.C.’s Department of Human Services.

"The District has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the country," said Gray. "But we also have some of country’s largest charities providing services to people living with HIV/AIDS and other life-challenging illnesses."

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