“I’m looking forward to the day when we come together on World AIDS Day and say it is the last World AIDS Day because we have licked this disease, we have overcome it, there will be no more infections, we have found a cure for those who have it and people are practicing prevention techniques so they don’t contract this disease again in the future,” said D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray.
First held in 1988, this year’s World AIDS Day took place less than five months after the nation’s capital hosted the International AIDS Conference.
Gray noted nearly 12,000 Washingtonians have died from AIDS since the city’s first known case in 1983. The Department of Health’s latest epidemiological report indicates 15,000 D.C. residents – or 2.7 percent of the city’s population – were living with HIV at the end of 2010.
Even though new HIV infections in D.C. have dropped 26 percent between 2006 and 2010, Gray acknowledged the fight against the virus in the nation’s capital is far from over.
“Of course the most important goal is to end the epidemic — end it in the District of Columbia,” he said. “We know that anything above one percent is exceeding what would be epidemic levels. We are at 2.7 percent and frankly in terms of prevalence we will probably be at 2.7 or around it for a while because we are now able to extend life. But in terms of incidents… we’re going to see that number come down because people are getting better educated, they’re practicing better prevention techniques and just doing more to recognize that the best way to treat this disease is not to have it in the first place.”
Dr. Gregory Pappas of the DOH’s HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, Sexually Transmitted Disease and Tuberculosis Administration joined DOH Interim Director Dr. Saul Levin; Deputy D.C. Mayor Bibi Otero; Andrew Barnett, executive director of Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL) and others at the vigil. Reverend Dwayne Johnson of Metropolitan Community Church of Washington was among those who also spoke.
“With my children growing up one day into a world that could be HIV free, that generation is now. That generation is here,” said Chayla Daniels, whose two young children served as grand marshals of the annual AIDS Walk Washington in October.
A peer educator since she was in high school, Daniels said her husband’s aunt passed away from AIDS. Several of his relative learned they were living with HIV while in the military.
“This disease does not discriminate, so don’t you fail to educate,” she said.
Don Blanchon, executive director of Whitman-Walker Health, urged those who attended the vigil to get tested if they don’t know their status. He reiterated the epidemic is far from over, but stressed the fight against HIV/AIDS has made tremendous strides over the last 25 years.
“On that first World AIDS Day a quarter of a century ago; there was still much fear, great sadness and little hope in the near-term and in the long-term,” said Blanchon. “With no effective treatments, AIDS was absolutely a death sentence for many who were infected. And many family and friends had to bury a loved one after long and painful struggles and restless nights. Now we mark World AIDS Day with much less fear and sadness and with a tremendous amount of hope.”