Whitman-Walker Health, Walgreens and Greater Than AIDS Partner for HIV Awareness
Rita Johnson never thought in a million years that she'd take an HIV/AIDS test. But the stars aligned, which led her to reconsider and she decided to be tested. Johnson who had been single said that she entered into a new relationship just over a week ago.
She didn't want the specter of HIV/AIDS looming in the air, so she and her boyfriend both decided to get tested.
"We had the conversation about safe sex and found out that there would be testing here," the District resident said while standing in front of the Van Ness Walgreens on Connecticut Avenue in Northwest.
"He had his done the other day and I came up to get mine today," said Johnson who asked that her real name not be used.
And although Johnson, 50, said her status was never in doubt, she wanted confirmation of her partner's status. "You never know what the other person's lifestyle has been or what they're doing when you're not together," she said.
The Whitman-Walker Health partnered with Walgreens and the non-profit organization Greater Than AIDS, to provide free HIV testing at the Van Ness Walgreens on June 27-29 as part of a nation-wide campaign to heighten awareness of the disease. National HIV Testing Day fell on Wednesday, June 27 and Whitman-Walker also provided testing at its Max Robinson Center location in Southeast and the Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center in Northwest.
Despite record-setting temperatures that peaked at triple digits, nearly 60 people joined Johnson and trekked over to Walgreens to take advantage of the free testing during the three-day event. A handful of Whitman-Walker employees and volunteers eagerly offered assistance, directed participants to proper locations for test preparation and answered questions. Prevention awareness pamphlets, cards and an assortment of male and female prophylactics were readily accessible for those seeking information and protection.
"The staff was very nice and I was very comfortable," Johnson recalled. "I would definitely recommend it and tell other people about it."
The HIV/AIDS epidemic continues to plague individuals not only in D.C., but across the nation. According to recent data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than half of the 1.1 million individuals currently infected with HIV are African American.
The District has made strides in arresting HIV transmission and currently 2.7 percent of District residents have tested positive for the disease, down from previous years. And while these victories allow for optimism, experts agree that sexually active individuals must remain vigilant in the fight against the disease which was once considered a death sentence, but can now be managed with a variety of medications and treatment modalities.
"Although the numbers for D.C. have improved statistically, the fact remains that last year over 850 people were newly diagnosed with HIV," said David Chalfant, 47, Whitman-Walker's director of development. "That's more than two a day. And the fact that over 250 people last year died in the District from HIV complications is a fact that is totally changeable given proper medical therapy. We need to keep trying to do a better job."
While this is the first year of the partnership between Whitman-Walker, Walgreens and Greater Than AIDS, by all measures, organizers said, that it appeared to be a success. Whitman-Walker ramped up efforts well in advance to inform the public to ensure that as many people as possible learned about the free testing offered on National HIV Testing Day.
"Everyone I've talked to so far either saw us on the television, the news, the website or heard about the testing on the radio. They heard it somewhere," said Naomi Harris, 24, Whitman-Walker's volunteer coordinator. "We also passed out flyers the past few weeks."
AIDS activists hope that the contraceptives offered at the test sites, along with safe sex awareness among those who are sexually active will help to quell the number of HIV positive infections. But Johnson firmly believes that prevention awareness begin much earlier.
"It starts at home with parents telling their kids about safe sex. A lot of adults and kids don't want to take advice or listen to people," she said. "They want to be carefree. Hopefully, more people will start using protection or [enter into] more committed relationships instead of having a large number of partners."
While some will differ when listing the best method for HIV prevention, many will agree that the importance of awareness and its heightened visibility proves invaluable when combating the disease, Chalfant said.
"Knowing your status is the No. 1 key to success. Anytime we get the opportunity to participate in testing, we try to take advantage of it," Chalfant said. "... It helps create awareness and helps remind people that this fight is not over, and it helps reduce stigma around HIV and makes it a little more understandable as a manageable chronic condition."