September 27, 2011 | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
D.C. to start ‘social network’ HIV testing program

Mayor Vince Gray, Gregory Pappas and Mohammed Akhter at the announcement. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The National Association of People with AIDS will participate in a D.C. government sponsored pilot program aimed at enlisting people who are HIV positive to persuade their friends and acquaintances through social networks to get tested for HIV.

In a press conference on Tuesday, Mayor Vincent Gray, city health officials, and NAPWA President Frank Oldham said the new program would be another in a series of HIV prevention and testing initiatives employed by the city to curtail the number of new HIV infections.

The news conference was held in at the Metropolitan Community Church of Washington in conjunction with National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, which is sponsored by NAPWA.

“While the District of Columbia has made great strides in fighting the epidemic, we’re still having 700 to 800 new HIV diagnoses every year, and the greatest proportion among those new diagnoses is still gay men,” said Dr. Gregory Pappas, senior deputy director of the D.C. Department of Health’s HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD, and TB Administration (HAHSTA).

“We estimate that there are about 10,000 people in the District of Columbia who are HIV positive and don’t know their status,” said Pappas, who is among Gray’s high-level gay appointees.

Pappas said the pilot program is modeled after successful programs in New York City and San Francisco. He said those cities retain community based AIDS advocacy and service groups to help recruit teams of HIV positive gay men to reach out to people they know and to persuade them to “come in” for testing.

“In the city we have networks of positive people through organizations like NAPWA,” Pappas said. “We’re working with those groups to go out and bring their friends in, bring their contacts in to testing.”

According to Pappas, in the New York program, about 25 percent of those recruited to come in for HIV testing were found to be HIV positive.

Gray and Dr. Mohammed Akhter, director of the D.C. Department of Health, stressed at the news conference that D.C. has a policy of “treatment on demand” for all those who test HIV positive. For those who don’t have private insurance, Akhter said, the city provides full treatment and care for people with HIV or AIDS.

NAPWA President Frank Oldham (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Oldham said his organization is calling on all gay men to get tested for HIV as a means of ensuring that those who test positive will remain healthy through treatment. Oldham also points to scientific studies showing that people with HIV who receive the now standard of care treatment are far less likely to infect others because treatment often results in lowering the viral load to a point where the infectivity rate is greatly diminished.

“Treatment is prevention,” he said.

NAPWA was scheduled to conclude its National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day activities at 5 p.m. Tuesday in Dupont Circle, where the group was to release into the air more than 300 bright red helium balloons to commemorate people with HIV/AIDS.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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