Washington, D.C. is the perfect place for the 19th annual International AIDS Conference, which starts Sunday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
The six-day event is being held in the U.S. for the first time because until 2010 the nation banned carriers of HIV from entering the country.
The irony was not lost on organizers who are well aware that HIV/AIDS is at epidemic levels in the District. Slightly more than 3 percent of the city’s residents aged 12 or older were living with HIV or AIDS in 2010, according to the latest numbers available.
That’s higher than five PEPFAR countries, according to United Nations statistics.
PEPFAR is the acronym for President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which was launched by President George W. Bush’s in 2003 to provide financial aid and other assistance to tackle AIDS in 15 African and Caribbean countries with the highest HIV/AIDS rates.
According to GlobalPost.com, if the nation’s capital were an African nation it would rank 23rd out of 54 countries in the percentage of people with HIV.
Chris Beyrer, professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University and on the governing council of the International AIDS Society, told The Washington Post that D.C. was chosen in part because of that data.
“We try and select cities where we can use the conference as a tool to try to engage awareness in the local population,” Beyrer said.
But D.C. also has begun to get a handle on addressing the problem, taking a page from efforts in African nations.
Of D.C. residents with HIV/AIDS, 7 percent are black men, 3.5 percent are Hispanic men and 2.9 percent are black women.
Teams of HIV field workers go out in the poorest neighborhoods of the city, which are particularly hard hit, to distribute information and free condoms and direct people to free HIV testing in mobile vans and then help residents get access to treatment.
Health professionals say it is important that HIV testing become a normal part of doctor visits. Once the test becomes routinized, they say, more people will be willing to drop their denial and get current about their status.
Unlike a lot of developing countries, most residents in D.C. have health insurance, or access to health clinics, and antiretroviral drugs, which suppress HIV, are readily available. Health and local government officials say they are already beginning to see success with the strategy and want to see it replicated in other hard-hit communities around the country.
There are 34 million people, worldwide, who are HIV-positive and about 30 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses. More than 500,000 million people in the U.S. have died of AIDS complications and more than 1 million have HIV.
About 21,000 people have registered for the conference and thousands more are expected to descend on the city for the conference, which will host events around the city that will be free and open to the public, including a 190,000-square-foot Global Village featuring panel discussions, exhibits and entertainment.
Other events include several marches, and the unfurling of a 48,000-square-foot AIDS quilt on the National Mall.
At 2 p.m. on Sunday, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation will host a march and rally at the Washington Monument, which will include speakers Cornell West, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Tavis Smiley, comedian Margaret Cho and musician/activist Wyclef Jean.
Scheduled conference speakers include entertainer Whoopi Goldberg, “American Idol” semifinalist Jamar Rogers (who also is participating in a CDC campaign to remove the stigma of HIV/AIDS), singer Elton John, former President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
Onsite registration is available at the convention center and day passes are available. (604) 736-7763, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.aids2012.org for details.