It was a balmy 54-degree-Saturday morning, and 28-year-old Justin B. Smith was on the streets of Washington in the middle of Freedom Plaza stretching his quadriceps and hamstrings in preparation for a 5K run.
He has not run since high school, but this one would be the most meaningful of his life.
“I am HIV positive,” said the Silver Spring, Md. native who contracted the virus at 25.
On October 4, he was running to take a stand against HIV and AIDS. He was joined by about 6,000 people at Freedom Plaza. People of all ages and ethnicities paced down Pennsylvania Avenue N.W. proudly wearing blue and white t-shirts with “AIDS Walk Washington” embedded on their upper torsos.
“I wanted to make sure I did something for the community other than the journal,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve ever done this run. I want to keep giving as much as I can.”
For six months, Smith has been maintaining a video journal on YouTube titled “Justin’s HIV Journal.” Through the journal, he details his life living with HIV. During his first entry, he explains he has to begin taking three pills a day, including Norvir, which prevents infected cells from releasing HIV into the body.
The DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice has been monitoring the District’s progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS. On Sept. 24, the center issued its fourth report card in which it commended the District for its surveillance of HIV and monitoring HIV/AIDS among prisoners. But the report strongly recommended adopting system-wide, health education standards in D.C.’s public schools. Smith said education and prevention is key.
“We need to better educate our youth on the disease so they won’t have to struggle with the same thing some of us are struggling with now,” he said.
Whitman-Walker Clinic, which has organized the event since 1983, said more than $700,000 was raised to support HIV/AIDS programs in the city this year. The clinic is the largest provider of HIV services in the District, including basic health care, a food bank and counseling.
According to Whitman-Walker, more than 15,000 people are living with AIDS in the District. While one in every 20 adults is infected with HIV, African-Americans account for eight out of every 10 AIDS cases. The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta estimates that nationally, Black women and Black gay men account for the highest rate of HIV/AIDS cases at 72.4 percent and 74.8 percent respectively. The highest mode of exposure in D.C. is male-to-male sexual contact at 37 percent.
Ron Simmons, president and CEO of Us Helping Us, recalled a CDC study that attributes two dynamics to the heightened AIDS rate in black communities. There is a higher prevalence for black people to have sexual partners among each other, and a higher prevalence of STDs among Blacks, said Simmons. His organization specializes in HIV/AIDS prevention and care services for black gay and bisexual men in D.C.
“It boils down to saying ‘no more’, getting tested more and using condoms even more,” Simmons said. Simmons also admonishes couples to get tested together, and people being honest about their status.
David Mallory, director for the walk, also said the causes behind the rising numbers are multifaceted.
“Part of it comes with the state of being young and the feeling of invincibility,” he said. “There’s still a stigma in a lot of communities around HIV/AIDS.”