Baltimore has joined an international group of cities working collectively to tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic, health officials announced Tuesday.
The effort, called the Fast-Track Cities Initiative, was launched in Paris in 2014 and targets cities where infection rates are high. Baltimore consistently ranks in the top five for infections. About 13,400 residents are estimated to be living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The announcement comes as city residents and officials marked World Aids Day Tuesday with free testing and a vigil hosted by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for those who have died from the disease and those still living with it.
"Becoming a Fast-Track City recognizes Baltimore's innovative efforts to work with stakeholders to implement locally relevant, individually tailored, and community led strategies to curb stigma, reduce the number of new HIV infections and end AIDS-related deaths in our city," said Dr. Leana Wen, city health commissioner.
The initiative is led by the International Association of Providers of AIDS Care, which partners with the United Nations to leverage existing resources to end the epidemic by 2030. The program helps cities determine ways to increase prevention, testing and treatment services.
The announcement was made at the White House by officials who outlined their own Federal Action Plan that calls for specific strategies to curb infections and increase treatment through 2020.
Washington and Providence, R.I., were also named Fast-Track cities, joining Atlanta, Denver, Miami, Oakland and San Francisco. Dozens of cities around the world also participate.
Baltimore health officials said while infections had been declining nationwide and locally, new infections have begun rising again among gay men and transgender people, particularly those who are African-American. About 40 percent of newly infected people in recent years have been gay men, officials said.
At the vigil under a City Hall dome lit red for the day, Rawlings-Blake presented Wen with a proclamation designating Tuesday as World AIDS Day in Baltimore.
"We, together, are greater than AIDS," Rawlings-Blake said. "Eradicating this disease remains a top priority not just for my administration, but for us as a community.
The city won a $20 million federal grant in September to fund new strategies to target at risk communities and push a drug that could help prevent people from becoming infected. Baltimore planned to partner with 11 community and provider groups in the effort.
President Barack Obama issued an executive order in July calling on officials to come up with broader strategies to reach the most heavily affected people, including many who don't yet know they are infected.
For those at high-risk in Baltimore, health officials said efforts will center less on behavior changes and more on expanded rapid testing, use of drugs that can make the virus nearly undetectable when taken consistently and use of the drug to reduce people's chances of becoming infected.
The plan also calls for counseling and support for those infected so they adhere to their drug regimens, as well as reducing the stigma attached to the disease.
Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.