Clients feel at ease coming into the Max Robinson Center for a variety of services. (Dorothy Rowley/The Washington Informer)

In Washington, D.C., the rate of newly diagnosed cases of HIV has seen a downward trend over the past 10 years, but the rate of newly diagnosed cases is still high enough to be called an epidemic by the World Health Organization. By the end of 2017, there were 13,003 residents known to be living with HIV in the District, with 368 newly diagnosed cases, down from 535 cases in 2013.

The most significant concern among health care providers, D.C. Department of Health officials and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser is the rising HIV rates among young people between 13-29, men who have sex with men and Latinos. A DOH 2017 report indicated Black gay men and black heterosexual women are the highest proportion of newly diagnosed HIV, with the highest cases among residents living in Wards 7 and 8.

The good news is that with advanced research, improved medications and lifestyle changes AIDS, the disease caused by HIV is no longer a death sentence, and statistics reveal that some 36.1 million people are living longer with HIV/AIDS.

“That’s why it’s so important to get the word out about efforts to bring awareness and help eradicate the epidemic – especially in D.C.,” said Adisa Bakare, 41, operations manager of Youth Services at the Max Robinson Center in Southeast, where the rate of HIV/AIDS is reportedly the highest in the District.

The busy facility located on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, S.E. is one of five health clinics operated by Whitman-Walker Health, a full-service health care provider that offers testing and “stigma-free” health care. An average of 15 to 20 individuals walk into the Max Robinson Center every day where they can get tested and receive “stigma-free” comprehensive health care services.

Whitman-Walker, whose anchor facility is on 14th Street in Northwest, has been in existence for four decades. This year, in December, they will hold the annual AIDS walk at Freedom Plaza. “The walk will include anyone who wants to participate – whether they are businesses, sororities, and fraternities or others in support of ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic.”

Adisa Barkare has worked for 10 years with clients at the Max Robinson Center in southeast D.C. (Dorothy Rowley/The Washington Informer)

Bakare, 41, has worked at Max Robinson – named for the nation’s first black TV network news anchor who died at age 49 in 1988 from complications of AIDS – for the past 10 years.

“I love what I do and who we work for,” Bakare said. A passionate advocate for the eradication of HIV, he explained that in addition to living longer, patients can now have access to “more drugs now to stem the spread, including a once a day ‘PrEP’ pill for clients who are sexually active.”

The pill dramatically reduces the risk of HIV-negative people from contracting the virus if taken consistently.

“The HIV/AIDS epidemic got a big focus in the ‘80s when people started dying, and no one could figure out what was going on,” Bakare continued. “It wasn’t until the government lent focus to the issue that things began to change for the better.”

He said most of the center’s clients live in Southeast.

“Both African Americans and white people – they all come to the center due to the word they’ve gotten about the care given to our clients,” Bakare said. “When the [federally-funded center] opened at this location [in 1993], we used to just have African-American clients. But as word got around, we started seeing a more diverse clientele,” leading the center to become a beacon of light among struggles against poverty, homelessness and rampant feelings of marginalization. “We’re very busy . . . people feel at ease to come in.”

Many of those clients also come for other services, including a substance abuse program — and mental health counseling, Bakare said, aligning his sentiments with a National Institute of Mental Health assertion that the HIV can contribute to such problems, and that people living with the virus are twice as likely to be depressed than those who are not infected.

The nonprofit Los-Angeles-based Black AIDS Institute founded in 1999 is the only national HIV/AIDS think tank focused exclusively on African Americans. The institute promotes awareness to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS by targeting African American communities.

A recent Black AIDS Institute-sponsored webinar led by Yolo Akili Robinson and Isabel Shawel, focused on understanding mental health care and HIV care connections in minority communities and how nontreatment of significant depression symptoms might impact an HIV diagnosis.

While depression is more common among women living with HIV, compared with men grappling with the disease, Robinson stressed during the hour-long Oct. 9 webinar, that people afflicted with HIV can still cope and manage good and bad psychological behavior.

Robinson said because people think mental illness labels them as crazy, that triggers feelings of shame that makes them avoid counseling or treatment.

“This has a particular impact on black and brown people,” said Robinson. “Mental health is really about our relationships and our mental well-being, and we [should] all be part of the dialogue, instead of stigmatizing the issue — which makes it worse for people living with HIV/AIDS.”

The pair added that while nutrition also plays a role in the mental health of people who’ve contracted the disease, HIV diagnoses for 2009-2014 among black men and women suffering from depression ranked higher for men than women.

Overall, “we try to have a totality of care,” Bakare said of the Max Robinson Center. “The main thing is to know your status. So, don’t be afraid to get tested.”

He also encouraged people to come out to the walk to help wipe out HIV.

“I go every year and bring my children,” said Bakare. “You will see a sea of people and with it being so close to Halloween, many will be dressed in costumes. It’s going to be a fun event.”

The “2018 Walk & 5K to End HIV” on Saturday, Dec. 1, is now in its 32nd year and, serves as Whitman-Walker Health’s signature fundraiser that calls on thousands of D.C.-area residents to lace up their shoes and walk or run to support WWH’s mission of providing dependable, high-quality, comprehensive and accessible health care to those infected or affected by HIV/AIDS.

Check-in is at 7:30 a.m. and the walk begins at 9:20 a.m. at Freedom Plaza on Pennsylvania Ave. and 13th St, NW.

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