Gray Takes the Initiative on HIV/AIDS

James Wright | 3/16/2011, 11:54 p.m.
The mayor of the District of Columbia has decided to tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic by...
Mayor Vincent Gray (left) and Council members David Catania (I-At-Large) - Courtesy Photos  

The mayor of the District of Columbia has decided to tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic by creating a commission that will study the disease and he will serve as a promoter for an international conference that will discuss the pandemic.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) announced the creation of the Mayor's Commission on HIV/AIDS on Wed., Feb. 23 with the intent of ending the disease in the District. The commission will focus on treatment, the needs of people living with HIV/AIDS and prevention to stop the new infections.

"By bringing together HIV/AIDS leaders from our best medical institutions, our universities and the community, this commission will ensure that we fight HIV as One City," Gray, 68, said.

"The rate of deaths from HIV/AIDS has decreased, however we still have a three percent infection rate, every resident needs to take this disease seriously and be invested in ending new infections."

The District received international attention a few years ago when it was revealed that three percent of city residents are known to be living with HIV/AIDS, according to a 2008 report conducted by the District's HIV/AIDS office. The report stated that while
Blacks made up 53 percent of the D.C. population, they made up 76 percent of those living with the disease.

It has been noted that the city's rate of infection is comparable with some sub-Saharan African countries.

The commission met for the first time on Wed., March 9, with the mayor swearing-in new members, hearing reports on the high HIV infection rates in various parts of the District of Columbia and discussing how to address the commission's goals of improving the city's response to the disease.

Gray gave the commission three main responsibilities, which were to develop evidence-based HIV/AIDS policy recommendations to help reduce the HIV infection rates; work on recommendations regarding the coordination of the District's HIV/AIDS strategy which will include public-private partnerships and collaboration across jurisdictional and international boundaries and initiate recommendations to control the epidemic and therefore, create training and employment opportunities within the city.

Dr. Mohammad Akhter, the director of the Department of Health, said that the commission will be hands-on in fighting HIV/AIDS.

"In order for us to improve on the progress already made in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and really make a difference by decreasing the rate of new infections and improving the care for our residents living with HIV/AIDS, we must engage the entire community," Akhter said.

"This commission brings together our established partners with new organizations to increase the scope, influence and impact of our work, so that we can increase our success in this critical area."

Members of the commission include D.C. City Administrator Allen Lew, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Beatriz "BB" Otero, Akhter, D.C. Council members David Catania (I-At-Large) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Acting D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and Isaac Fulwood, a former D.C. police chief.

The D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice in Northwest recently released its report, "HIV/AIDS in the Nation's Capital", in which it gave the city generally high grades for its response to combating the disease. The highest grade of "A" was given in the category of aiding HIV/AIDS among the incarcerated while the lowest grade was a "C-" for the Office of State
Superintendent of Education for its implementation of HIV/AIDS education.

However, the report did give the D.C. public schools a "B-plus" for its efforts in public education about the disease.

The executive summary of the report praised the administration of D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty for its "considerable progress in addressing HIV/AIDS" but said that during the latter years of the administration "the focus on the severity of the epidemic had waned." Its recommendation to Gray was to "continue the momentum set by his predecessors by making HIV/AIDS a priority and by improving prevention, treatment, surveillance, and other efforts."

Gray has said publicly that he will embrace the recommendations of the D.C. Appleseed report. The next scheduled meeting of the commission is on Tue., April 12.

The city's efforts to fight HIV/AIDS got a big boost when it was announced on Fri., Feb. 25 that the District will host the XIX International AIDS Conference, which will take place from July 22-27, 2012 at the Washington Convention Center in Northwest.
AIDS 2012 is expected to convene more than 20,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries, including more than 2,000 journalists.

The conference is the largest gathering of professionals working in the field of HIV/AIDS, including people who are living with the disease. The conference shapes the global response to HIV/AIDS and works to keep the disease on the international political agenda.

Elly Katabira, the International AIDS Society president and International chair of AIDS 2012, said that the District is a great place to host the conference.

"The District of Columbia is a city that knows too well the devastating impact that HIV can have on the fabric of a community," Katabira said.

"While AIDS 2012 will be international in scope, it will also be an opportunity to focus attention on the epidemic in D.C. and across the U.S. and to re-energize the response to the national HIV challenges as well as the specific epidemic in the nation's capital city."

Gray said that the conference will be a boon to the city and "the government of the District of Columbia will be an active and committed partner to ensure that the conference advances HIV/AIDS efforts in the District and around the world."
Catania, 43, said that the conference will show the city in a positive light.

"People from around the world will see the way we fight HIV/AIDS and can get some best practices from us," he said.
"This is a way to show the country and the world the great things we are doing here in the District."

Gray said that the conference will generate about $22-25 million for the city, noting that conference participants will "stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and enjoy the city's entertainment."

Catania said that the millions generated for the city will be good, but he has one regret.

"I wish the conference was taking place this year instead of next [year] because we need the money," he quipped.