The high price of ignorance: AIDS rate in Washington DC rivals some African nations

According to DC health care officials, the AIDS rate in the nation's capital is currently just under three percent, with at least 15,000 people suffering from the disease. While not on a par with the Ivory Coast, Kenya, and Tanzania, Washington far exceeds the AIDS rate of Nigeria, Gambia, Ghana and nine other African nations. Moreover, it is almost triple the worldwide AIDS rate, and approaches the four percent AIDS rate of San Francisco in the early 1990's.

Among minorities, the numbers are even more disturbing, with four percent of African Americans and two percent of Hispanics in DC currently suffering from the disease. Another interesting statistic is age-based: almost 10 percent of people between 40 and 49 are HIV positive. Perhaps most frightening, these numbers are based only on Washingtonians who have gotten tested for the virus. Given that only 60 percent of respondents knew their AIDS status and only 30 percent claimed to have used a condom the last time they had sex, it seems likely that the true infection statistics are higher.

These statistics offer a sobering prognosis for the country's health care system. According to a 2006 study, caring for the average HIV patient costs $600,000 over the course of a lifetime. By comparison, the World Bank states that the annual cost of caring for an HIV patient is roughly 2.7 times the GNP per capita. Put in other terms, this is approximately the same as the annual cost of educating ten primary school children.

By comparison, AIDS education is a bargain -- if the funds are used wisely. Unfortunately, DC, which was once a national leader in AIDS education and prevention, has had problems with reporting cases, targeting at-risk groups, and educating potential victims. In fact, today's shocking statistics may, ironically, be the result of a recent improvement in reporting and a 2006 routine-testing initiative. The city is hoping that improved testing, targeted education and a recently-reinstated needle exchange program will help it to once again get a handle on the problem.

Perhaps more important, with care for AIDS patients poised to take an ever-increasing bite out of the public coffers, it might be wise to seriously evaluate national expenditures on prevention and education. The key, it seems, is not just spending enough money, but spending it in the right places.
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