December 1, 2014 at 11:58 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Service providers, health officials mark World AIDS Day

World AIDS Day, gay news, Washington Blade

Whitman-Walker Health held a vigil for World AIDS Day at the Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center on Dec. 1, 2014. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Dozens of people gathered inside Whitman-Walker Health’s Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center in Northwest D.C. on Monday to commemorate World AIDS Day.

Whitman-Walker Executive Director Don Blanchon opened the event — which was moved indoors because of rain — by describing World AIDS Day as “a chance to pause for a minute and remember so many people that we’ve lost” to the epidemic. A candlelight vigil had been scheduled to take place, but the change of venue prompted attendees to instead use the lights on their cell phones to pay tribute to those lost to the epidemic.

“Those lives were really valuable,” said Blanchon.

Blanchon added World AIDS Day “motivates us to end the epidemic.”

“We all want to end this at some point in time, and we’d love to see that happen in the course of our lifetime,” he said.

More than 11,000 Washingtonians have died from HIV since D.C.’s first known case was reported in 1983.

The city’s HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, Sexually Transmitted Disease and Tuberculosis Administration (HAHSTA)’s latest epidemiological report indicates 16,072 D.C. residents — or 2.5 percent of the nation’s capital’s population — were living with HIV at the end of 2012. These include Ron Swanda, who learned he was living with the virus 25 years ago.

“Testing positive was then and still is a life-changing event, but back then it felt like a death sentence,” said Swanda at Whitman-Walker. “Most of my distress 25 years ago sprang from the fact that there as little prospect for medical treatment.”

HAHSTA’s latest epidemiological report indicates new HIV cases in D.C. dropped from 1,180 in 2008 to 680 in 2012.

Men who have sex with men continue to account for the most newly reported and existing infections, but the report noted this rate fell 29 percent between 2008 and 2012.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and his administration have repeatedly noted the city’s condom distribution and needle exchange programs and efforts to encourage HIV testing have contributed to progress in the fight against the epidemic in the nation’s capital. Advocates and public health officials alike also point to so-called treatment on demand that connects Washingtonians to HIV-specific care within three months of learning their status.

“We are on the forefront of many things,” said HAHSTA Director Michael Kharfen. “We have seen progress on our work on the epidemic.”

Leandrea Gilliam of MetroTeen AIDS, whose uncle passed away from HIV, agreed.

“There’s no reason that anybody has to die in the District of Columbia,” she said.

Those who gathered at Whitman-Walker on Monday held a moment of silence for D.C. Council member and former Mayor Marion Barry who passed away on Nov. 23.

Blanchon noted Barry in the early 1980s became the first U.S. mayor to approve a contract for an AIDS hotline.

“The council member had such a strong reaction to the epidemic and the way it hurt gay men and how quickly there needed to be a response,” said Blanchon. “He had always been first and foremost in the fight. There was no better ally in the fight against HIV than Council member Barry.”

Blanchon and Kharfen both expressed optimism a cure for HIV is in sight.

“I hope that sometime I’m celebrating a World AIDS Day with you where there’s actually a cure,” said Blanchon.

He acknowledged the fight against HIV is far from over, highlighting a report the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released last week that indicates roughly 14 percent of people living with the virus don’t know their status. Ari Pomerantz of Helping Individual People Survive noted access to housing and incarceration are among the barriers many people living with HIV continue to face.

“We have a long ways to go,” he said.

Sterling Washington of the Mayor’s Office of GLBT Affairs, Rabbi Laurie Green from Congregation Bet Mishpachah in D.C. and Rev. Courtenay Miller of Norbeck Community Church in Silver Spring also spoke at the World AIDS Day commemoration. Justin Ritchie of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington sang “For Good” from Wicked.

Neither Gray nor Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser attended the event.

HIV/AIDS ‘enduring challenge’ despite global progress

The first World AIDS Day took place in 1988.

HIV/AIDS advocates, elected officials and others gathered in cities throughout the U.S. and around the world to commemorate the annual event.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio; New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and gay New York City Council member Corey Johnson, who lives with HIV, are among those took part in the launch of a campaign designed to end the AIDS epidemic in the Empire State. Sharon Hudson-Dean, head of mission to the U.S. Embassy in Latvia, on Monday spoke at a World AIDS Day event in Riga, the country’s capital.

“HIV continues to be a serious health issue in many parts of the world,” said Hudson-Dean, noting an estimated 35 million people throughout the globe are currently living with HIV. “It’s important that we recognize World AIDS Day to encourage education about the disease, to provide accurate information on how to prevent infection and to encourage people to get regularly tested and to seek treatment, if needed.”

Sharon Hudson-Dean, Latvia, World AIDS Day, gay news, Washington Blade

Sharon Hudson-Dean, head of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Latvia, attends a World AIDS Day vigil in Riga, Latvia, on Dec. 1, 2014. (Photo courtesy of Kaspars Zalitis)

The State Department on Monday announced a $210 million public-private partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates and Nike Foundations through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) that is designed to reduce new HIV infections in girls and young women in 10 countries. It also unveiled a $116.5 million investment to bolster African countries’ health care systems.

Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday described HIV/AIDS as an “enduring challenge” during a World AIDS Day event at the State Department.

“Thanks to landmark scientific advances, and frankly, thanks to the grit and determination of so many of you here in this room, the fact is we do have…an AIDS-free generation in sight,” he said. “That is, in and of itself, an absolutely remarkable accomplishment.”

A large red ribbon hung on the North Portico of the White House on Monday to commemorate World AIDS Day.

“This World AIDS Day, we come together to honor all those who have been touched by HIV/AIDS and celebrate the promising public health and scientific advances that have brought us closer to our goal of an AIDS-free generation,” said President Obama in a proclamation.

Obama, like Kerry, also acknowledged the challenges that remain in the fight against the epidemic.

“Too many with HIV/AIDS, especially young Americans, still do not know they are infected,” said the president in his proclamation. “Too many communities, including gay and bisexual men, African Americans and Hispanic remain disproportionately impacted and too many individuals continue to bear the burden of discrimination and stigma. There is more work to do, and my administration remains steadfast in our commitment to defeating this disease.”

‘Response to HIV/AIDS is a matter of human rights’

Promsex, a Peruvian LGBT advocacy organization, used World AIDS Day as the backdrop to urge the South American country to bolster its efforts to combat the epidemic.

The group in a press release cited statistics from the Peruvian Ministry of Health that indicate more than a quarter of trans people in the country are living with HIV. Roughly 12 percent of Peruvian men who have sex with men are also positive.

“The response to HIV/AIDS is a matter of human rights,” said Promsex.

Fabrice Houdart, president of GLOBE, a group for LGBT World Bank employees, said on Monday during a panel in Northwest Washington that pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) could contribute to “an AIDS-free generation.” He said countries must begin to address the criminalization of homosexuality and other issues that adversely affect the fight against the epidemic.

“You cannot achieve that (an AIDS-free generation) without starting to deal with very sensitive, difficult issues,” said Houdart.

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

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