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National Latino AIDS Awareness Day: A Perspective from Puerto Rico

by Peter M. Shepard Rivas, MS
Coaí, Inc

The HIV epidemic is a serious public health threat to the Hispanic/Latino community. Latinos account for 20% (9,400) of new HIV infections (including residents of Puerto Rico), which is itself 16% of the total population of the United States (CDC HIV/AIDS among Hispanics / Latinos Fact Sheet, Revised 11/2011). In terms of the statistics of the United States and its territories, Puerto Rico is among the top of incidence and prevalence of AIDS in adults.

According to the summary of the Office of Research and AIDS Surveillance, Department of Health regarding the HIV epidemic in Puerto Rico, each day three persons are diagnosed on the island (11/2009) with an average of 1,116 cases reported annually. Based on data from the Division of AIDS Surveillance as of September 30, 2012, Puerto Rico has  reported 35.080 AIDS cases and 8.961 diagnosed HIV cases since June 2003. In terms of the objective population that we reach in our program, cumulative AIDS cases diagnosed at 30/09/12 in adults and adolescents for the risk behavior of men who have sex with men (MSM) account for 17% (N = 34.696), the second category by gender (Men who are injection drug users (IDU) – 39% and Heterosexual Females 15%). Also the category of MSM-IDU represents 7% (N = 35.080). The importance of addressing the HIV situation in Puerto Rico, especially our metropolitan statistical area, has been the reason that we have has become one of the 12 cities participating in the effort of Enhanced Comprehensive HIV Prevention Planning (ECHPP). This initiative and the development of our comprehensive prevention plan put us on par with the National HIV/AIDS Strategy.

The impact that HIV has had on Puerto Rican society necessitates that we constantly reinforce public information strategies and awareness. The National Latino AIDS Awareness Day (NLAAD) is an effort to alert our citizens that, as Latinos, it is important to know how to prevent HIV and to know our status. Moreover, the political situation of Puerto Rico creates an “air bridge” between the island and mainland with a constant exchange between the islanders and residents of the U.S., creating special ties with the Latino community within states and other territories. Although NLAAD-related activities are still under development in Puerto Rico, every year people are more aware of this observance and its importance to eradicate stigma of  HIV/AIDS in the hope that, not only people living with HIV/AIDS have a healthy without harm, but everyone who might be at- risk have access to HIV prevention, testing and treatment services.

For the past seven years in Coaí, Inc., and our Aché program we have been providing HIV tests and health education & risk reduction. With AIDS United funds our program recruits MSM (HIV negative at risk or HIV positive) to participate in a preventive and educational intervention known as Many Men, Many Voices (3MV). Through this model MSM acquire knowledge and tools to prevent or reduce damage for HIV infection. It also serves as a vehicle to reinforce in our participants the importance of getting tested. So in commemoration of NLAAD, our program will be distributing condoms, information and conducting HIV tests in places where the population we serve socializes on October 15.

Coaí, Inc is a grantee of AIDS United’s Puerto Rico grantmaking initiative

Triumph and Teamwork

By Rob Banaszak, Communications Director, AIDS United

Picture this…Chicago…October 7, 2012. The weather is brisk and chilly but the autumn day is crisp and lovely. More than 40,000 runners are in their “corrals,” jumping up and down, stretching, chatting, praying — all anxiously awaiting the moment when they will begin to run. And run and run and run. 26.2 miles.

The Chicago Marathon.

The clock starts and the runners are off! A sea of neon headbands and jackets and tank tops and tights and shoes, all moving to the hypnotic beat of rubber shoes hitting the pavement like a metronome. Pum pum pum pum pum pum pum.

Forty five thousand runners, weaving through skyscrapers one moment, then 30 minutes later a tree-lined park, then 30 minutes after that, wonderful neighborhoods, like Lincoln Park, and Wrigleyville, and Boystown, and Greektown and Chinatown…then snaking back into the gleaming city…

People lining the streets cheering with posters and shouts of encouragement and water and Gatorade and bananas and vaseline (non-runners must imagine for themselves what that might be for).

The energy. The determination. The exhilaration. The triumph!

And the triumph was more than just about my running results (which had significantly improved since my first marathon last year!).  The triumph also was a victory in the fight for an AIDS-free America. You see, I have run my first two marathons as part of AIDS United’s Team to End AIDS program, an endurance training program that raises awareness of the HIV epidemic in the United States by raising funds to support life-saving HIV/AIDS prevention and care programs across the country.

As a participant in the Team to End AIDS Program (or T2 as we affectionately call it at AIDS United), I not only had to commit to the training program that would lead me to the promised land of marathon-finishing, but also had to commit to raising funds to support the work of AIDS United, which is not only my employer but is also an organization near and dear to my heart. I am one of nearly 300 people who trained to run in one of several marathons or triathlons, and who also collectively raised more than thousands of dollars to help end AIDS in the United States.

When we raised money for our sponsorships, we raised awareness about HIV in our country with the generous family and friends who supported us.

When we trained wearing our T2 training gear throughout the summer we raised awareness about HIV with all those we encountered on the streets and running trails.

While we wore our special running tank tops that were created just for our marathon events, we raised awareness about HIV with our fellow runners and with all who stood on the sidelines cheering us on.

Team to End AIDS is truly that — a team. But we who have worked so hard to train for our respective events have become much more than that. We have become a family. We support each other, we encourage each other, we push each other, and we celebrate each other.

With that kind of teamwork, we can — and we will — end AIDS in America.

And that’s the team I want to be on!

Education is Power

By Liam Cabal, Program Manager

Today, on National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, I feel both hopeful and frustrated for the state of HIV among gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (MSM). I am hopeful because we are at a point in time where new prevention strategies are better targeting those most at-risk for infection and treatment options have improved the lives of those living with HIV. However, I am frustrated because as the rates of infection in the U.S. have remained relatively stable for the past six years, MSM continue to be disproportionately affected by and have the highest risk for HIV infection. While MSM make up approximately two percent of the nation’s population, they made up 61 percent of all new HIV infections in 2009. And among MSM, young MSM and black/African American MSM are the most disproportionately affected. We must increase our efforts to tackle the continued problem.

As a gay man, I am especially concerned with how HIV has affected my community. Working in the HIV field daily, sometimes I take for granted the knowledge I have about HIV prevention and treatment. It is when I speak to my peers outside of the field that I am reminded that many gay men have limited knowledge about HIV. They may remember some core messages:  get tested regularly to know your status; use a condom when you have sex; and if you become infected, there are treatment options available that will allow you to live a long and healthy life. Unfortunately, they may not always act on them, or they don’t see HIV as a problem in our community any longer. We need to continue to engage gay, bisexual and other MSM about how HIV affects them, so they can protect themselves and stay healthy.

To help address this need, AIDS United has launched the first phase of its comprehensive m2mPower initiative through a cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). m2mPower is a multi-pronged initiative designed to build the capacity of organizations serving MSM to address HIV in their communities where AIDS United will have a targeted MSM mobilization effort to engage non-HIV specific organizations in Baltimore, Maryland and Atlanta, Georgia. The initiative will mobilize MSM in these communities around HIV-prevention messaging by using a unique combination of cash grants, training, intensive technical assistance, communications expertise, and program evaluation.

I have the privilege of managing this new initiative at AIDS United.  The program is directly connected to my community and brings together my professional and personal passions.  As we observe National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, I am proud and excited to be on the ground floor of what promises to be an exciting and comprehensive way to educate gay men about HIV and about their health.   m2mPower truly reflects AIDS United’s commitment  — and mine — to helping those communities disproportionately affected by HIV, and to bringing an end to the HIV epidemic in America.

Atlanta Adds Southern Flavor to Harm Reduction

By Tessie Castillo, NC Harm Reduction Coalition

You know you’re in for a good time when a conference kicks off with an electric guitar performance. Last week Atlanta hosted the 2nd Annual Southern Harm Reduction conference, launched with a spirited song about jack shacks and brothels and sung by a former sex worker from Georgia…and it only got better from there. Throughout the three day conference, active and former sex workers and drugs users gathered with law enforcement, veterans, academics and community service providers to discuss hot button issues such as overdose prevention, safer crack use, mass incarceration, human trafficking, and drug policy. The event aimed to add southern flavor to harm reduction, a concept usually synonymous with government-funded syringe exchange programs in northern states. But while New York and Massachusetts might have a strong harm reduction presence, small nonprofits and activists from all over the south are quietly addressing issues such as syringe access, appalling rates of HIV and hepatitis, mass incarceration of minorities, violence against sex workers, and drug user stigma.

Take Atlanta for example. Syringe exchange is illegal in the state of Georgia, but Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition (AHRC), who was one of the conference hosts hosted, has been providing life saving syringes to drug users and taking dirty needles off the streets for years. Rain, snow, sleet or hail, you’ll see Mona Bennett and her famous button hat offering HIV testing, referral to drug treatment, or a helping hand to people who use drugs.

Further up the coast, the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition provides harm reduction based direct services and advocacy, as well as trains law enforcement officers on how to avoid accidental needle-sticks and works with them to advocate for saner drugs laws.  In addition, organizations like Project Lazarus have saved hundreds of lives through educating medical providers and the community about overdose prevention.

To the west, Streetworks in Nashville is educating drug users on how blood borne pathogens spread through crack and injection drug use and works to improve the lives of people who use drugs.

Dip down to New Orleans where Women with a Vision provides women and sex workers with empowerment tools for how to lead healthier lives and to serve as their own advocates. These organization are just a few of the many harm reduction programs working to save lives, reduce stigma, and make safer communities below the Mason-Dixon line.

There is a lot of harm reduction in the South, it’s just not as visible as elsewhere. Southern programs grapple with different challenges than northern states, such as greater stigma, fewer resources, and complex legal situations. Southern harm reduction isn’t big and flashy, but small groups of dedicated people are making a difference in every state. The conference in Atlanta was a chance to come together and to learn about what works from people who are doing it. It was a chance to realize, “hey, we’re not alone.” It was a chance to say, we don’t have to bring harm reduction to the south, because we’re already here.

What People Said About the Southern Harm Reduction Conference in Atlanta:

“This conference is a chance to grow harm reduction in the south. I love it because I feel like my neighbors are getting closer.”

– Mona Bennett, Atlanta Harm Reduction, Atlanta, GA

“The incredible attendance for the conference speaks to the commitment in the south to be part of a harm reduction movement and to highlight the issues we face here, because they are unique.”

– Deon Haywood, Women with a Vision, New Orleans, LA

“As a law enforcement officer, I feel encouraged that people from various disciplines are willing to put their differences aside and come together to discuss greater safety and better communities for everyone.”

– Ronald Martin, North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, Raleigh, NC

“Using drugs doesn’t make anyone less of a person. We’re here to learn how to protect drug users’ rights and to reduce the harm caused by active drug use.”

– Ron Crowder, Streetworks, Nashville, TN

“I’m stoked at the number of people who have poured out to support southern harm reduction. It’s been a long time coming. I’ve always said that if we could bring support and experts to the south and begin to educate our folks about harm reduction, we could really start to see changes here.”

– Jeff McDowell, Atlanta Harm Reduction, Atlanta, GA

“I’m here to learn and to support my fellow peers in the trenches…I believe we can learn from each other. We get a lot of edicts from the CDC about prevention measures, but what works in New York might not work in the rural south. At this conference I can meet someone from Kentucky who is doing great work and I can bring it back to my state and emulate it.”

– Art Jackson, Independent, Fayetteville, NC

“It’s wonderful see participation from sex workers and people who use drugs. Living in Washington DC it’s easy to get away from that, so it’s important for me to listen and participate and to get involved with people on the ground.”

– Whitney Englander, Harm Reduction Coalition, Washington DC

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*To see conference photos go to the “Southern Harm Reduction and Drug Policy Network” Facebook page

*To check out the podcast on the conference go to the following link: http://harmreduction.org/publication-type/podcast/seventy-nine/

T’is the (Election) Season

Photo of Jessica Terlikowski

by Jessica Terlikowski, AIDS United Director of Regional Organizing

Just 53 days remain until Election Day.

That’s 53 days.

Fifty-three days to help voters understand that everything from HIV prevention to health care to housing to food stamps to LGBT rights to women’s reproductive health and justice is on the line this Election Day.

Fifty-three days to mobilize people who live with and care about HIV/AIDS to get to the polls early and on Election Day.

Fifty-three days to fight against the voter suppression efforts taking place in too many states.

Fifty-three days to bird-dog candidates with questions asking how they will address HIV and the health care crisis in the U.S.

Fifty-three days to light a fire within our community and ensure that every person who lives with, is at risk for, and cares about HIV/AIDS has their voice heard on November 6.

And there are even FEWER days for people to REGISTER to vote, with each state having its own registration deadline – a deadline that is swiftly approaching no matter where we live.

For the last five months, AIDS United has worked to make sure the HIV community has what it needs to get the vote out this election season. We have held webinars and on the ground trainings and strategized with grantees and partner organizations on how to ramp up their involvement in the elections. We collaborated with Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina partners to hold events featuring local and national leaders at the Republican and Democratic conventions to shine a light on what Medicaid expansion means for people living with HIV and how health care access is critical to turning the tide on U.S. HIV epidemic.

Packed rooms at each event listened to esteemed speakers: Dr. Joseph O’Neill, National AIDS Policy during the Bush Administration and President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) architect, Jeff Crowley, former director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy for President Obama and the force behind the development and implementation of the U.S. first National AIDS Strategy, and congressional HIV/AIDS champions Representative Barbara Lee (CA-9)
and Representative Maxine Waters (CA-35). Though they served under the leadership of two different parties, both former AIDS directors agreed that there is much that can and should be agreed upon across the aisle to end HIV in the U.S. and around the world. Both O’Neill and Crowley spoke to the importance of increasing the number of HIV-positive people who can access and stay in care.

Advocates at each event shared how they are using the election as an opportunity to educate voters, candidates, and elected officials about the needs of the HIV/AIDS community. Metro Wellness and Community Centers in Tampa is registering clients. North Carolina AIDS Action Network is asking North Carolinians to pledge to vote.Regional AIDS Interfaith Network is using the AIDS United voter mobilization toolkit to educate voters about the issues at stake. North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition is training law enforcement and veterans on how to talk with conservative lawmakers about the value of improving sterile syringe access and other harm reduction services. These are just a few examples of grassroots efforts to ensure that people living with and at risk of HIV/AIDS are informed and engaged in the civic process.

AIDS United grantees and partners in Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia are also building and mobilizing their states so that the voices of their HIV/AIDS communities are heard at the polls on November 6.

Over the next 53 days, you can count on AIDS United to continue to move full steam ahead with our efforts to engage, educate, and mobilize. Can we count on you to join us? Email organizing@aidsunited.org to let us know!

Mobilizing in DC for World Hepatitis Day

by Leilani Attilio, Intern
North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition

On July 28, 2012, North Carolina  Harm Reduction joined other hepatitis activists on the White House lawn to commemorate World Hepatitis Day with a special focus on Hepatitis B Virus (HBV) and the Hepatitis C Virus (HCV).  Hepatitis has reached epidemic proportions around the world, including the United States, but has largely flown under the radar in communities.   Approximately 805,000 to 1.4 million people1 and 3.2 million people2 are infected with HBV and HCV in the United States, respectively. Unfortunately, people who are infected with HCV, which is the leading cause of liver transplants and liver cancer in the United States, may not have any signs or symptoms for decades, making the spread of the disease more pervasive.  In addition, to give a sense to the seriousness of the disease (if the word “cancer” wasn’t enough), deaths due to HCV have surpassed those from HIV/AIDS3.  In an effort to curtail further transmission and deaths, the White House hosted the fifth World Hepatitis Day on August 2 to bring awareness to the threat of the disease across the country.

Featured panelists and speakers at the White House included Congressman Hank Johnson, who spoke about HCV as a person living with the disease; Dr. Howard Koh, the Assistant Secretary for Health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); and Dr. John Ward, Director of the Viral Hepatitis Program at the CDC.  The gathering was a platform to roll out strategy plans, recommendations, and tools for surveillance.  For example, the CDC unveiled an online risk assessment tool for hepatitis.  The brief questionnaire asks various questions such as year of birth and nativity.  At the end of the questionnaire, the assessment tool generates a printable summary and recommendations to discuss with your health care provider.

The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition is working closely with the North Carolina legislature for the state to adopt recommendations supported by numerous professional medical organizations such as American Medical Association, American Public Health Association, and Institute of Medicine.  These recommendations include syringe decriminalization, which would allow us to conduct syringe exchanges in North Carolina without criminal prosecution.  Injection drug use is a risk factor for HCV due to practices such as sharing needles during injection.   The coalition is looking forward to minimizing the risk of disease for all people and collaborating with other organizations t do this.  We hope you will join the fight.  The first step is to raise awareness. Consider this step checked off.

The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition is a grantee of AIDS United’s Southern REACH initiative.

References

1. Weinbaum CM, Williams I, Mast EE. Recommendations for identification and public health management of person with chronic hepatitis B virus infection: MMWR 57(RR-8):2;2008.

2. Armstrong GL, Wasley A, Simard EP, McQuillan GM, Kuhnert WL, Alter MJ. The prevalence of hepatitis C virus infection in the United States, 1999 through 2002. Ann Intern Med. May 16 2006;144(10):705-714.

3. Ly KN, Xing J, Klevens RM, Jiles RB, Ward JW, Holmberg SD. The increasing burden of mortality from viral hepatitis in the United States between 1999 and 2007. Ann Intern Med. Feb 21 2012;156(4):271-278.