Monday, November 26, 2007

The Katrina of Public Health

Some alarming, awe-inspiring, news today out of Washington, D.C., and no, it's not Trent Lott's resignation. The results of a study, the first of its kind, of HIV cases in the nation's capital are out, and they show that AIDS has reached "epidemic" proportions in D.C. (WaPo)

In the five year test period in question, ending in 2006, while African-Americans comprise roughly 60% of the city's population, they account for more than 80% of the more than 3,000 HIV cases that have been identified. 90% of women residents who tested positive for the disease are African-American. And, nearly 40% of reported cases were among heterosexuals showing, in the words of a District administrator, that "HIV is everybody's disease" in D.C.

The presence of an epidemic of this magnitude so close to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue can't help but make one wonder if federal policy, or non-policy is at the nucleus of this health catastrophe. Yet, where is the public outrage that a campaign of misinformation, disinformation, or information/education blocade should claim the same demographic casualties as that of Hurricane Katrina.

D.C.'s AIDS rate is the highest of any city in the U.S., and twice that of New York. Ostensibly, many of the 50 million uninsured Americans who live in our nation's capital are unable to get tested, or treated because they have no access to health care, but there are other numbers with respect to the African-American community that are almost as startling.

While blacks comprise only 12% of the population, nearly half of those on death row are African-American. Incarceration rates for blacks and latinos, in this country, are more than six times greater than for whites. One third of whites 25 or older have a college degree while only about 17% of blacks have graduated from college.

Many fault District health officials for not disseminating enough information, and creating a climate which is user-friendly for AIDS awareness, but the seeds of this campaign of devout ignorance may be found in the earliest days of this administration's tenure. As president-elect, George W. Bush told The New York Times "the jury is still out" on evolution. His attitude towards condom distribution, sex education, and HIV prevention shows that, for George Bush, the jury is out on science, too.

Moreover, on this administration's watch, more than $100 million in grants have been allocated for abstinence-only education programs. The president pressured the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to eliminate, from its Web site, anything that might promote the efficacy of using condoms to prevent STDs, and AIDS.

Roughly 90% of the $15 billion set aside for fighting HIV globally has been made available to domestic groups for use in their ongoing worldwide campaign to promote abstinence, and to discourage the use of condoms in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Is it any wonder then that the spread of HIV/AIDS of this magnitude among the largest minority population of any American city should strike this close to home for a president who, as his response to Hurricane Katrina has plainly demonstrated, is one of devout indifference.

In a city the size of D.C. that has nearly 20,000 of its residents infected by this deadly disease, somebody's got to pony up to how it came to pass that such a vast number, many of whom are over 40, manage to find themselves stricken with HIV or AIDS. And, while many prefer to blame District health officials for lagging public awareness of the AIDS crisis in Washington, there is no doubt that this administration's stalwart fundamentalist anti-science, anti-environment, and anti-reality ethos are principally responsible.

When there is such a large number of those who test positive who are minority, and an equally high percentage of incarcerated people of color, a good place to start might be inaugurating a program of condom distribution in D.C. prisons, if only to protect the larger population. By not making safe sex available to the inmate population, the Bush administration is, in effect, affirming their policy of “selective survival,” which was witnessed in the footage of those who had the wherewithal to escape Hurricane Katrina by taking to the highway making it out of New Orleans while the rest were left to perish.

But, those who have built their legacy on the politics of denial are condemned to the legacy they’ve created for themselves.

The platform of "compassionate conservatism" on which this president ran is no more to be found in these statistics than in the waving hands of those drowning as a result of a monstrous hurricane in New Orleans. Once again, it becomes crystal clear that survival, too, is a matter of privilege.

The jury is no longer out on this White House, and its contagion of ideology which has claimed the lives of thousands on the battlefield, and many more at home.