June 2, 2011 at 3:00 pm EST | by Naseema Shafi
30 years later, our lives are forever changed

On April 4, 1983, 1,200 men attended the District of Columbia’s first public forum on HIV/AIDS at the Lisner Auditorium. Whitman-Walker organized the meeting so that public health leaders could distribute what little information there was to a panicked community. The HIV/AIDS epidemic had started to take root in the District and across the nation. Our lives remain forever changed.

Whitman-Walker took care of hundreds of our community members during the initial impact of the epidemic, offering supportive services and as much comfort as we could in that challenging time. We watched as we lost our loved ones and we responded in the best way that we knew how: with compassion.

After 30 years of HIV/AIDS, we have lost more than a half million of our loved ones here in the United States to this disease. Current data tells us that more than 3 percent of all adults in the District have been diagnosed with HIV and data suggest that another two to three percent is likely to be infected but that they remain undiagnosed. Within the gay and bisexual community the numbers are more sobering: One in seven gay or bisexual men in D.C. is HIV-positive; one in three black gay or bisexual men in D.C. is infected.

Thirty years later, the news about how this complex disease affects our lives remains sobering. We must not lose sight of the continued fight to find a cure. Thanks to the combined efforts of the LGBT community, our government, researchers, providers of all kinds and others, HIV-positive individuals have a variety of ever-growing treatment options.  Treatment regimens offer good outcomes, despite known side effects. Our loved ones are living long, healthy lives and sharing their joy with us.

Whitman-Walker provides a wide range of high quality health care services, including primary medical care, dental care, mental health services and even legal help for all members of the community, especially those with HIV. We accept commercial and public insurances and can also find ways to help those without insurance to access services. We provide care to more than 2,800 HIV-positive individuals. The quality of the care that we provide is high with more of our HIV-positive patients on medication regimens than the national norm. The compassion in our care is evident in the stories our patients tell.

We also offer free walk-in HIV counseling and testing at our Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center in Northwest D.C. and our Max Robinson Center in Anacostia. Our community health team goes out into our neighborhoods on the mobile testing unit to provide free HIV testing and education. You may have seen them at your local nightclubs, health fairs or grocery stores. We provide more than 13,000 HIV tests each year.

Today, the epidemic continues into its fourth decade. Men who have sex with men face a very different HIV/AIDS landscape than they did in 1983. Those days were darkened by the shock of this new illness and a lack of viable treatment options. Today, HIV is a chronic health condition with ever-growing treatment options. Treatment is not always easy, to which people you love can certainly attest, but treatment can be successful. There is still no cure.

That first public forum is indicative of Whitman-Walker’s historical commitment to the LGBT community. We heard the concern and we responded. It was the start of our commitment to the fight against HIV/AIDS. That commitment has never wavered. Whitman-Walker Health will proudly continue to be an active leader in this fight.

Know your status. Get tested often. Early treatment leads to improved outcomes.

Naseema Shafi is COO of Whitman-Walker Health.

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