By Mike Lillis - 10/15/10 07:25 PM EDT
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) this week put her voice behind the effort to eliminate pediatric HIV/AIDS in a place where it's become epidemic: the nation's capital.
At a small gathering on Capitol Hill Friday, the 10-term lawmaker urged Congress for more funding and implored young women to get tested to prevent the disease from spreading to their children — "the most tragic victims," she said, of a scourge that's largely preventable.
"It's a tragedy for the mother," Norton said. "It's an even worse tragedy for the infant."
Norton would know. The District of Columbia has the highest HIV/AIDS rate (3 percent) in the country, according to a report released last year, and the highest rate of new cases — figures health officials say underestimate the real problem.
Black women represent more than a quarter of those cases, the report found, with nearly 60 percent of them infected through heterosexual sex. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that roughly a quarter of women suffering from HIV nationwide don't know they have it — a stark threat to the children they might have contraction.
The Pediatrics AIDS/HIV Care — a Washington advocacy group catering to children suffering from the disease or orphaned by it — estimates that 9 percent of all pediatric HIV/AIDS cases in the country are in D.C.
Khadijah Tribble, executive director of the group, said Friday that children and women are too often forgotten in the fight against the disease.
"We have to become focused on them," she said.
The other big barrier for advocates, Tribble added, is the stigma surrounding the disease, which is generally associated with gay men. Eliminating that, she said, would go a long way toward encouraging women to get the screenings that could prevent more pediatric cases.
"We can no longer disrespect them and treat them like the scum of the earth," Tribble said.
Norton was also quick to emphasize that the disease is no longer isolated to the gay community.
"Put all of the homophobia out of your mind," Norton said. "Assume pregnancy, if you're a young woman, and get tested."