D.C. to Observe 20th Anniversary of World AIDS Day

Events Set to Raise Awareness in Epicenter of Pandemic

World AIDS Day observances will be held across the District today to raise awareness of the epidemic that has claimed more than 25 million lives since 1981.

Recognized on Dec. 1 each year, World AIDS Day was established by the World Health Organization in 1988. Since then, governments, community organizations, churches and charities worldwide have commemorated World AIDS Day.

More than a million people are living with HIV/AIDS, and another 250,000 people nationwide might be HIV-positive but unaware that they are infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) .

In the Washington area alone, the latest figures show that in 2006 there were more than 30,000 reported AIDS cases, making the District of Columbia the center of the nation’s AIDS pandemic.

African Americans have been particularly hit. Though blacks in the District were estimated to comprise 55.4 percent of the population in 2006, they accounted for 78.9 percent of new reports of HIV cases and approximately 81.2 percent of living AIDS cases, according to the Black AIDS Institute .

Additionally, blacks only make up 13 percent of the population nationally, but they account for almost half of the estimated number of HIV/AIDS cases in 2006.

“The face of AIDS today in America is black,” Black AIDS Institute board member Christopher Cathcart said. “This is unacceptable. We’re trying to get all people, not only blacks, to pay attention to the fact that AIDS remains a problem.”

Homosexual men in the District have also been severely struck by the AIDS crisis. Since 2001, young men who have sex with men ages 13 to 24 in the District of Columbia experienced a 900 percent increase of reported HIV infection compared to the previous five-year period, the Washington Department of Health estimated. Despite these increases, only half of all young adults under 25 are aware of their HIV status or have actively sought an HIV test.

With the alarming statistics, Michael Kharsen, the HIV/AIDS Community Outreach Bureau Chief for Washington Department of Health, stressed the importance of getting tested.

“HIV testing should be as routine as an annual physical,” he said. “Everyone needs to get tested early. For those who test negative, we can give them the information to help them stay negative. For those who test positive, we will provide them with the proper care and treatments available so they can live productive lives.”

But even with World AIDS Day and other awareness movements, the nation’s capital has not seen a decrease in new HIV/AIDS cases.

“That’s what’s expected,” Kharsen said. “As more people get tested, more people will learn they have HIV. We are looking to see increases in HIV cases within the next four years.”

Cathcart, also the founder of Ledge Magazine , the nation’s first and only HIV/AIDS magazine written by and for college students, said that raising awareness is not just the work of activists.

“You often hear about AIDS around World AIDS Day or during an election campaign and then when it’s over, all the hype goes away,'” he said. “But we can all help in some way. It doesn’t just take activists and experts, but everyone to stop the spread of AIDS.”

Events in the District observing the 20th anniversary of World AIDS Day include:

From World AIDS Day

Whitman-Walker Candlelight Vigil 5:30 p.m.Monday, Dec. 1Bethlehem Baptist Church2458 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. S.E.

Songs for Life DC World AIDS Day Concert 8 p.m.Monday, Dec. 1Harman Center610 F St. N.W.

Listen: Gay Men in Their Twenties Talk About Their Lives, Their Futures and the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in D.C. 7 p.m.Thursday, Dec. 4HRC Equality Center1640 Rhode Island Ave. N.W.