For the 31st consecutive year, people across the globe will spend much of Dec. 1, known as World AIDS Day, memorializing family and friends who died from complications of the autoimmune disorder and reflecting on the work ahead in preventing new infections.
In the District, which has the highest prevalence of HIV diagnoses among U.S. cities, public health advocates have their sights set on the youngest D.C. residents, many of whom they say shrug off the dangers of unprotected sex.
“What we hear from our peer educators is that their peers are so tired about hearing about condoms,” said Dwayne Lawson-Brown, 34, youth health educator at Whitman-Walker Health’s Freestyle Peer Education Center in Southeast, as he explained the hurdles teen program ambassadors face when engaging their friends.
On Friday, Whitman-Walker Health will host the “Golden Ticket Party for Prevention,” an effort to integrate sexual health awareness into a party setting. For more than three hours on the eve of World AIDS Day, young people between the ages of 13 and 24 will enjoy live music and free food in proximity to HIV testing and other resources.
The eighth annual gathering at Tropicalia Lounge in Northwest counts among a bevy of programming Whitman-Walker Health hosts throughout the year to raise awareness about the dangers of unprotected sex, the instances of which have significantly increased in the past decade according to a Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the Centers for Diseases Control & Prevention.
“Some young people feel that HIV isn’t as big a deal as it used to be,” Lawson-Brown said. “We know that not to be the case. We still have people being infected. In some communities, it’s disproportionate among Black women and Black men who have sex with men.”
A DC Department of Health report in August showed a steady decline in HIV diagnoses stemming from 2007. However, a point of concern for health officials revolved around the more than 10 percentage point increase in infections among young Washingtonians, the highest proportion seen in a decade.
Recent data from the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) painted an equally grim picture for young people across the country. Despite the decline in new HIV infections, African Americans, though just 12 percent of the U.S. population, account for nearly half of diagnoses. One out of five new HIV cases involves youths between the ages of 13 and 24.
Gretchen Weiss, NACCHO’s director of HIV, STI, and viral hepatitis, noted stigma around HIV and decreasing condom uses as factors in the prevalence of HIV among D.C. teenagers, whose cases are double the national average, according to the health department report.
“The ability to talk about HIV as a chronic condition comes from the advancements we made in caring for people with HIV,” Weiss said. “However, HIV absolutely carries a stigma that other ailments don’t. That’s why there’s been such a big push to reinvigorate the conversation around HIV in the communities most impacted and dispel the myths about the danger of someone who’s able to spread this disease.”
These days, people in danger of contracting HIV can take pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, a daily pill clinically approved in 2004. In May, the Food and Drug Administration approved PrEP for teenagers weighing at least 77 pounds. Since then, young people visiting Whitman-Walker Health have asked for it, Lawson-Brown said.
This summer, DOH launched its “Sexual + Being” campaign as part of an effort to encourage people of various ethnic and professional backgrounds to spark judgment-free conversations about sexual health. Agency leaders said they want to halve new HIV diagnoses by 2020 and ensure 90 percent of HIV-positive people know their status and use treatment by 2023.
Through Whitman-Walker Health L.I.T. DC (Leaders in Training) program, D.C.-area teenagers serve as peer educators with RealTalkDC, a youth program that allows for safe self-expression beyond World AIDS Day.
During monthly “Sex, Milk & Cookies” forums.at Whitman-Walker Health Freestyle Peer Education Center on Pennsylvania Avenue in Southeast, teens ask sex-related questions. That site also hosts open mic nights, and daily HIV/STI testing. Additionally, the East of the River Fall Festival at Whitman-Walker Health’s Max Robinson Center on Martin Luther King Jr Avenue in Southeast serves as an opportunity to enjoy cuisine from Caribbean Citations and use free medical, dental, and STI-related services.
Lawson-Brown, a public health professional of nearly 18 years, said these offerings allow him and his colleagues to impart crucial gems of knowledge to impressionable teens.
“Folks just want to have a good time and that’s across the board for all ages,” he said. “Sometimes people don’t think about [how] that good time could lead to some unfortunate results. At RealTalkDC, we see youth for who they are. We aim to give them the tools, skills, and information to make the best decisions for their health.”