HIV in DC and Baton Rouge: Observations from AIDS 2012

By Rob Banaszak on August 7, 2012 in 2012 International AIDS Conference

by Michael Robinson, Program Coordinator
Louisiana Public Health Institute
New Orleans, LA

The XIX International AIDS Conference has offered me a unique and exciting opportunity to meet with people around the globe who are dedicated to ending the AIDS epidemic. The synergy I felt being around such dynamic leaders was uplifting, inspiring and motivating. I enjoyed rousing speeches from outstanding public figures such as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Black AIDS Institute CEO Phil Wilson, the Director of UNAIDS Sheila Dinotshe and entertainer/activist/philanthropist, Sir Elton John. Including the fact that I had the privilege of meeting and speaking with singer/activist Jamar Rogers, Senator Barbara Lee, actor and HIV/AIDS activist Danny Glover and HIV/AIDS activist Hydeia Broadbent it is hard to pinpoint one thing that impacted me the most.

However, the opportunity to attend a press conference on the State of HIV/AIDS in The DC Area was one of my most significant experiences of this conference. The press conference’s panel of speakers included Leo Rennie, the DCC Policy Committee Chair, Ron Simmons of Us Helping Us, Christine Campbell, Co-Chair of the DC Community Coalition for AIDS 2012, Tinselyn Simms-Hall of the Women’s Collective, Sabrina Heard, D.C. Resident and Flora Hamilton of Family and Medical Counseling Services. Panelist spoke about some of the positive strides the District of Columbia has made over the last several years, yet it was clear that the main purpose  was for community leaders across the D.C. area to continue calling on the District Government to broaden its approach to ending the HIV epidemic. Rather than waiting and hoping for the city’s leadership to develop a comprehensive strategy to address the District’s HIV epidemic, a group of individuals living with and affected by HIV and AIDS in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area founded the DC Community Coalition (DCCC) to take proactive steps to move the city forward on ending HIV. The coalition membership includes AIDS activists, faith leaders, women’s groups, transgendered persons, people living with HIV, social workers, health care providers, lawyers, researchers, youth, gay men, and sex workers.

At first glance one might think there are not many similarities between Baton Rouge and DC. However, the most obvious similarity is that both cities have initiated aggressive testing campaigns. As a result of expanded testing, both cities efforts have revealed some of the highest new AIDS case rates among major metropolitan cities in the country with Baton Rouge most recently ranking at number 2; a ranking usually held by much larger cities. Like DCCC, community leaders in Baton Rouge have recently convened to work with city government to develop new and expanded strategies to address HIV/AIDS education, prevention and care and treatment services in its metropolitan area. However, perhaps unlike DC, one of Baton Rouge’s major challenges is building capacity for providing the plethora of social services and primary care services needed to compensate for the influx of newly diagnosed individuals in the city. Also, one of Baton Rouge’s major challenges continues to be combating the overwhelming stigma that is attached to many of the areas’ AIDS service organizations and HIV primary care services. Stigma continues to be one of the greatest barriers for many individuals in seeking the care and services they need.

So, while the District of Columbia and Baton Rouge can show their HIV testing efforts have resulted in identifying many new HIV positive individuals it is clear that this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the work that has yet to be done. It will take the continued efforts of community leaders along with local, state and federal government to reduce new HIV infections, create and improve accessibility to HIV care services and retain individuals in HIV/AIDS related care. It is apparent that both city’s community leaders are dedicated to changing the tide of the epidemic in their respective areas and will have to continue to build coalitions to make a significant impact, not only on HIV and AIDS case rates but the access to care services.

Michael Robinson works on Louisiana Public Health Institute‘s Positive Charge access to care program, funded by AIDS United and Bristol-Myer Squibb.

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