October 24, 2012 at 11:12 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Thousands expected at annual D.C. AIDS Walk
AIDS Walk 25

D.C.’s AIDS Walk, organized by Whitman-Walker Health, turned 25 in 2011. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Up to 10,000 people are expected to take part in the 26th annual AIDS Walk Washington in D.C. on Oct. 27.

The event will kick off at Freedom Plaza at 9:15 a.m. after a series of speakers and performers take the stage—including the D.C. Cowboys’ last performance. Whitman-Walker Health, which produces and benefits from the AIDS Walk, will also honor George Kerr, executive director of Westminster START, and GEICO during the event.

NBC 4 anchors Aaron Gilchrist and Eun Yang will emcee the AIDS Walk.

“This is one of the most pressing issues for this city, and the black community in particular,” Gilchrist told the Washington Blade. “I’m proud that NBC4 has been involved with the walk for so many years. And I’m glad that I can show some support for the cause in some small way this year.”

“Every hour 30 children die as a result of AIDS,” added Yang. “We are making progress here in the District. No children have been born with HIV in DC since 2009. But we need to do more.  That’s why I’m so proud that NBC4 has partnered with AIDS Walk for so many years to raise awareness and continue to work to improve the lives of people living with HIV and AIDS.”

Roughly 20,000 D.C. residents have been diagnosed with HIV — and more than 10,000 Washingtonians have died from AIDS since the city reported its first known case in 1983. The D.C. Department of Health’s latest epidemiological report indicates 2.7 percent of city residents were living with the virus at the end of 2010. New HIV diagnoses dropped 36 percent among white Washingtonians and 24 percent among D.C. residents between 2006 and 2010.

The epidemic continues to disproportionately impact the city’s black and gay residents but Mayor Vincent Gray and his administration continue to cite progress in the fight against the virus. The city distributed more than five million male and female condoms last year. Gray has also credited Washington’s needle exchange program for a 72 percent drop in HIV rates among intravenous drug users between 2007 and 2010.

Don Blanchon, executive director of Whitman-Walker Health, told the Blade that this year’s AIDS Walk is different from those of previous years because of the ongoing impact of the International AIDS Conference that took place in D.C. in July.

“What’s different from past years is this year’s really about hope,” he said. “The hope really comes from all of the work, the solidarity, the support that came out of the International AIDS Conference that was held here in July. And the fact that we have so many more tools to prevent new infections, to keep people in care, to keep their viral loads suppressed and afford them an opportunity to live healthy lives.”

Blanchon also looked beyond AIDS 2012 to discuss how his organization and other HIV/AIDS service providers can continue to work toward the goal of what he described as an AIDS-free generation.

“We have enough tools,” he said. “We have prevention strategies that are targeted for at-risk groups. We have massive condom distribution. We have a huge HIV testing campaign across the city. We have health centers that specialize in this work and that can keep people healthy. We have all of the elements we need and it’s really can we bring that together and sustain that over time. And so that hope is really not just something I’m pulling from a conference or what have you. The hope is we actually have the tools to be able to get to zero infections.”

Blanchon added the decision to select Miles and Milaya Daniels, who are 20-months and 10-weeks-old respectively, as this year’s grand marshals also sends a message.

“What we though was most powerful this year in the community was rallying the energy and the humanity that came from the International AIDS Conference. And that hope and energy and the ability to go back to wherever you call home and redouble your efforts to fight against the best new infection, that’s where it was,” he said. “If we want to really commit to this idea of an AIDS-free generation than the ones who are now in the middle of this work at the community level, we’ve got to put a face on who these people are in that AIDS-free generation. We really love the idea of these two great kids.”

A full schedule of events and other information about the AIDS Walk can be found at www.aidswalkwashington.org

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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