D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and Congressional Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton were among the estimated 5,000 people who attended the event that began on Freedom Plaza in downtown Washington. NBC anchor Eun Yang emceed the AIDS Walk for the second consecutive year, while Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams served as grand marshals.
“This morning we walk to free ourselves completely and absolutely from HIV/AIDS,” Norton said.
Both Norton and Gray discussed the progress D.C. has made in fighting the epidemic.
The latest HIV/AIDS epidemiology report that D.C. officials released last month noted newly diagnosed HIV cases in the nation’s capital decreased 46 percent from 2007.
The report noted the number of HIV/AIDS-related deaths in D.C. dropped from 425 in 2007 to 251 in 2011. It also said 80 percent of those who learned they were living with the virus in 2011 were linked to HIV-specific care within three months of their diagnosis.
“Given the complexity and the severe consequences of a condition like AIDS, for us to say that 30 years later we have made the enormous progress that we have made is absolutely phenomenal,” Gray said, noting the city’s needle exchange program has reduced new HIV cases among intravenous drug users by 80 percent from 2007 to 2011. “It gives absolutely the confidence to those who have this condition or who have family members who have this condition to know that America is working hard to be able to beat this condition.”
In spite of this progress, D.C. continues to have one of the country’s highest HIV/AIDS rates.
Roughly 15,000 Washingtonians — or 2.4 percent of D.C. residents — were living with the virus at the end of 2011. Men who have sex with men and heterosexual sexual contact were the two leading modes of transmission among newly diagnosed HIV cases.
“We know we’ve made tremendous progress, but in recent years D.C. still faces a serious HIV epidemic,” Yang said. “We have to get those numbers down to zero as the mayor said. And we have a lot of work to do.”
Megan Eluhu of Peer Health Exchange, an organization comprised of college students who teach health workshops in D.C. public schools, took part in the AIDS Walk with three of her colleagues.
“This is a really fantastic cause,” Eluhu told the Washington Blade as she walked along Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. “We just wanted to come out and visibility support it.”
D.C. resident Lakisa Blocker talked about her uncle who has lived with HIV for 21 years as she and 11 other members of her group walked near the U.S. Capitol. Another uncle lost his battle with the virus.
“I’m very passionate about finding a cure,” Blocker said.
Whitman-Walker Health CEO Don Blanchon posthumously honored Sean Sasser, an HIV/AIDS advocate who married Pedro Zamora of MTV’s “The Real World: San Francisco” in 1994.
Sasser passed away in August after a battle with mesothelioma.
“He spent 25 years as Don said living with HIV, but his story is not unique,” Sasser’s husband, Michael Kaplan, said after he accepted the award. “What he gets the courage award for was not unique either, and that is about living his life out and openly as an HIV-positive individual.”