Fighting HIV/AIDS in the Washington area

Advocates for HIV and AIDS are urging local health departments and non-profits to make it easier for residents to get testing, prevention and care, no matter where they live.

"We need more opportunities for someone who lives in one place or works in another or moves, not to change doctors but to be able to get care wherever," said Emily Gantz-McKay, president of Mosaica: The Center for Nonprofit Development.

Last week, a region-wide forum on HIV/AIDS hosted by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments took place in D.C., where advocates and doctors alike gathered to discuss the virus.

Health departments already compare note on behavioral trends and patient demographics, but to reduce the transmission of HV, they say more communication is needed.

"If it was hard-wired more or less in the infrastructure of all three jurisdictions, it would certainly go a long way to eradicate this disease that is 100 percent preventable," said Pamela Creekmur, an RN with Prince George's County Dept. of Health.

According to recent CDC data, about 53 percent of people living with HIV or AIDS in the region live in the District. That means another 47 percent, or some 18,000 people, are living with the disease outside of D.C. in the metropolitan suburbs.

Generally, men who have sex with men without using protection lead the region in newly diagnosed cases. But in areas like Montgomery County, health officials must also address the social stigma and lack of education in immigrant populations.

"Lot's of people have it, it's just a part of life," said Dr. Susan Robilotto, with the Montgomery County Dept. of Health. "We've heard a lot of reasons why they won't stay in care. They are not ready to commit to medicines for the rest of their life. They don't feel bad so they aren't going to go to the doctors."

In recent years, experts have realized they must work more closely with local churches and faith leaders.

"It is the critical missing link that hasn't even been addressed for all these years," said Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu, with the Fairfax County Dept. of Health. "I don't think we'll be able to curb the epidemic in some of these high-hit communities without the clergy because what is fueling the epidemic is denial, stigma and this comes out of the church."