Browsing Category: HIV/AIDS Awareness Days

Reflections on World AIDS Day in D.C.

By Melissa Donze, Zamora Fellow

On the evening before World AIDS Day, I took a walk down to the White House after work. As a recent transplant to D.C., the sight of the White House, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol still make me smile like a tourist. But this time, as I turned the corner and crossed through Lafayette Square, the sight of the White House took my breath away.

Draped across the North Portico was a big, red ribbon. It stood out so vividly against the white backdrop, and for a moment I stood there, frozen, completely entranced. It was an incredibly beautiful sight.

It’s been seven years since I first became actively involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS; seven years since I first started informing my high school peers about HIV; seven years since I found out that most people in my small hometown didn’t want to talk about sex or drugs or race or poverty because HIV “didn’t affect them.”

Admittedly, I was one of those people. I thought I was invincible, untouchable, unaffected. That all changed at the age of eleven, when I was diagnosed with Latent Tuberculosis. Nine months of medication, blood tests and doctor’s visits later, I stand here at the age of 22, happier and healthier than ever. I knew that the reason for my good health was the medicine I was taking, and despite financial struggles, there was never any question about affording my medication. I knew that in some way, I wanted to help those who weren’t given the chance to live, a chance I had been given without restriction or hesitation. It was a few years later on World AIDS Day 2005 that I learned about HIV through an amazing documentary, and it struck me like no other issue has struck me before; it is so incredibly preventable, yet there are still 30 million people living with HIV/AIDS today, over 1 million of which are in the United States.

Despite the fact that I had been commemorating World AIDS Day for years, this time felt different. It felt exhilarating. As I stood in front of the White House that night and gathered with strangers for a candlelight vigil the next day, I felt empowered in a way I had never felt before. There I was, standing in our nation’s capital, witnessing a fight that has always been so personal converging with the work I do daily in an incredibly powerful way. I am grateful every single day that I work at AIDS United as the Zamora Fellow, an opportunity that allows me to channel my truest passion into real, tangible progress and policy.

Just in the seven years that I have been involved in this fight, I have witnessed enormous progress. I have seen the advent of new science provide breakthrough methods of treatment and prevention. I have seen declines in transmission rates in many countries around the world. I have seen community-based organizations take innovative approaches to encourage testing and disseminate awareness about HIV-related issues. I have seen President Obama release the first ever National HIV/AIDS Strategy, which aims to reduce new HIV infections, increase access to care, reduce health inequities and HIV-related disparities, and coordinate a more effective response to the national epidemic.

At the same time, however, I see that incidence rates in the United States remain at around 50,000 new infections per year despite an abundance of information and resources to actually reduce the number of new infections. I see a huge disconnect in the number of people diagnosed with HIV and the number of people who have regular access to care and treatment. I see certain groups, especially young, African-American men who have sex with men (MSM), disproportionately affected by HIV. I see outdated policies and misguided notions perpetuate stigma and discrimination. I see newspaper columnists and government officials talk about the “global AIDS epidemic,” yet fail to consider HIV in the United States as part of this epidemic. I see an increasingly disillusioned population, in particular the youth, who do not care about HIV, who believe HIV doesn’t impact their lives in any way.

To them, I ask: Do you have sex? Do you have friends who have sex? If the answer is yes, then HIV has an impact on your life. Are you between the ages of 13-24? If the answer is yes, you are a part of the population that accounts for 25% of new HIV infections. HIV has an impact on your life. Do you live in an urban area or in the South, areas in which rates of HIV tend to be higher? If the answer is yes, HIV has an impact on your life. Do you have friends who have been tested for HIV? Have you yourself been tested for HIV? Regardless of your answer, HIV has an impact on your life.

This World AIDS Day, I remembered those we have lost, celebrated those still with us and reflected on the great strides we have made. In the face of the many challenges that confront us, I renewed my commitment to end this epidemic. We have come so far, and our success should be recognized. But we can’t let our past success preclude us from taking action today. We are at a crossroads in history; we have the science, political momentum and expertise to actually see the end of AIDS, but it requires us to take aggressive and coordinated action now.

I truly believe I will see the end of AIDS in my lifetime. Today, more than anything else, I have hope. And it is this hope that keeps me fighting every day.

A View of HIV from Kenya

by Julia Cheng, former AIDS United Zamora Fellow

Hello and habari zenu!

On this World AIDS Day, I greet you from Kenya.  I’m a Peace Corps volunteer working as a science teacher at a secondary school about 22 kilometers (about 14 miles) from the nearest paved road.  Two years ago, I was at AIDS United in the policy department as a Pedro Zamora fellow.

Today I’m Kisumu.  I’m running a half-marathon for Worlds AIDS Day.  Running this half marathon has got me thinking about the parallels between Kenya and in the U.S.   AU is finishing up its second year of the Team to End AIDS endurance training program.  That’s one similarity between the U.S. and Kenya.  But there are just as many differences for all the similarities.  In the year I’ve been here I’ve learned and experienced many things, some of which I wanted to share with you.

It might go without saying that my jobs in Kenya and in Washington, D.C. have been very different.  At AU, everyday, my work directly revolved around HIV and AIDS  and working on big picture issues.  As a teacher, my work has almost been the opposite.  Most of the time, I teach biology and physics which usually have little relevance to HIV.  But, once a week for each form (grade) I teach a life skills class where I get to talk about HIV, sex, goals, decision making, and all those unique challenges that teenagers and young adults face.  As a teacher, I work directly with students.

HIV in Kenya and the U.S. is very different.  Just by the statistics, Kenya differs from the U.S. by having a higher prevalence rate, around six percent.  Like other African countries, here the epidemic is generalized among the population.  But, attitudes to the virus are different too.  Ask any school age child what HIV or AIDS is and they’ll be able to tell you what it stands for, how you get it, and they might even be able to sing a song about it.  Yet, how well have they absorbed this information?  And of course, misinformation still abounds.

The biggest difference to me is not the misinformation–the things I heard growing up in Mississippi don’t always sound too different from here.  The major difference is comprehension and accesibility to alternative information.  In the U.S., there are books, libraries, the internet, or a trusted adult that a student can ask sensitive questions to.  In Kenya, that is not necessarily the case.  Access to books is lacking, at my school, students share the text books.  A few subjects have only three or four books for a classroom of forty.  Books outside of the required texts are rare and highly valued.  Students lack access to computers, the internet, and most importantly lack computer literacy.  The adult they may ask might have the same access or even less access to information as the student.  For those adults with information, the student may be too intimidated to ask.

Like all misinformation, some is obvious to students.  For example, during a model school exercise, I and other current volunteers asked students to play a game of “fact or myth.”  We had students write things they had heard about HIV and together, decided if they were facts or myths.  Some concepts, like “albino’s can’t get HIV,” students instinctively knew as a myth.  However, ideas like “condoms do not prevent against HIV” were more confusing.  My students and others across the country have heard both that condoms can protect them and that condoms are not 100% effective from veritable sources.  Which are they to believe?  Explaining why they might have heard both things and how both are true is where most of my work comes in.

Another big difference–that, to be honest, I haven’t quite yet figured out yet–are attitudes to testing.  For example, one life skills class, I decided to take my students to the local dispensary.  I wanted to expose them to where they could be tested and to show them what the process of testing and counseling looked like.  One of the clincians suggested that after the demonstration, students that wanted to be tested could do so.  I agreed, but expressed skepticism.  Yet, to my surprise, each and every student that I brought wanted to get tested.  This, despite my repeated assurances that they did not have to and were not expected to. In all, three fourths of the school (~160 students) were tested, the limiting factor become the number of available tests.

Attitudes and reactions to HIV are different everywhere.  Even attitudes and reactions to running are different everywhere.  In training for this half marathon, sometimes I’d have to explain myself.  In Kenya though, it’s easy for me to explain. Everyone here knows the word marathon since some of the top marathon runners in the world come from Kenya.  In some other places though, I don’t doubt most people would be craning their necks to see what I was running from.  In the U.S., attitudes to running and HIV can be highly geographic.  For HIV, this makes our job more difficult.  There’s no one method that we can use to tackle the epidemic.  But it can also help us.  Part of the reason I came here is that I’ve always appreciated learning from people different from me.  Learning how to live in a different country, run in a different country, and address HIV issues in a different country has made me a more capable person.  In a similar way, learning and experiencing other attitudes and ways of addressing HIV, we can become more capable at dealing with the full spectrum and diversity of our world and our country.

Team DC Unveils the T.H.E. Memorial Garden

This year Team DC decided to collaborate with Transgender Health Empowerment in their efforts to enhance the quality of life of the diverse transgender population that they serve. Our team is worked hard to provide support to their clients, and revitalize the plot of land adjacent to THE. Our efforts were to help allow THE clients to take ownership of a community garden and provide a space to gather and facilitate community building.

Starting in February, we began to create a detailed plan on how the garden was going to look like, how much it was going to cost us, how we would raise the money and what kind of long-term effect we wanted the community garden to leave. We literally began the renewal of the garden with a pair of gloves, a few trash bags and our hands. We spent one full day pulling weeds, some reaching the height of our hips.  The messy plot of land was filled with rocks, clay, bricks, needles, broken glass, trash, you name it! However, once we finished the garden, it was filled with lots of herbs and vegetables including zucchini squash, oregano, okra, basil, tomatoes and our favorite, chocolate mint!  The goal was to have not only a peaceful place for their low-income, HIV positive clients to relax in but for them to also adapt a healthy lifestyle with fresh vegetables and herbs that they could hand pick.

After months of running in an out of Home Depot, getting assistance from local carpenters Danny and Randy, raising nearly $2,000, days in the heat working tirelessly, a 10′ x 12′ patio, picnic table, grill, bench, a hydrangea tree and many shrubs, vegetables and herbs later, we decided to reveal the garden on June 27, which happened to be National HIV Testing Day.  Our team ended up administering over 80 HIV tests to people in the local community along with passing out fish and hamburger trays as incentives for getting tested!

Team DC is so proud of our hard work as a team! Being able to create a space for such a small organization that serves a population that is constantly overlooked was a very rewarding way to end our year as Americorps members.

Día Nacional Latino para la Concientización del SIDA (NLAAD): Una perspectiva desde Puerto Rico

by Peter M. Shepard Rivas, MS
Coaí, Inc

La epidemia del VIH es una seria amenaza de salud pública para la comunidad hispana o latina. Los latinos representaron, al 2009, el 20% (9,400) de las nuevas infecciones de VIH (incluidos los residentes de Puerto Rico), siendo a su vez el 16% de la población total de los Estados Unidos (CDC HIV/AIDS among Hispanics/Latinos Fact Sheet, Revised 11/2011). En términos de las estadísticas de Estados Unidos y sus territorios, Puerto Rico se encuentra entre los primeros lugares de incidencia y prevalencia de sida en adultos.

Según el resumen de la epidemia del VIH en Puerto Rico de la Oficina de Epidermiología e Investigación de Vigilancia SIDA, Departamento de Salud de Puerto Rico cada día son diagnosticadas 3 personas en la isla (11/2009) con un promedio de 1,116 casos reportados anualmente. Basado en la data del Departamento de Salud y la División de Vigilancia SIDA al 31 de enero de 2012, en Puerto Rico hay reportado 35,080 casos acumulados de SIDA y 8,961 casos diagnosticados de VIH desde junio de 2003. En términos de la población objetivo de nuestro programa, los casos acumulativos de sida diagnosticados al 30/09/12 en adultos y adolescentes por conducta de riesgo la de Hombres que tienen Sexo con Hombres (HSH) representan el 17% (N=34,696), siendo la segunda categoría por género (UDI Hombres – 39%; Heterosexuales – Mujeres 15%) Además la categoría de HSH-UDI representa un 7% (N=35,080) adicional. La importancia de atender la situación del VIH en la isla, sobretodo siendo nuestra área estadística metropolitana una de las más afectadas, la ha convertido en una de las 12 ciudades participantes del esfuerzo del Enhanced Comprehensive HIV Prevention Planning (ECHPP). Esta iniciativa y el desarrollo de nuestro Plan Integral de Prevención nos ponen a la par del NHAS.

El impacto que ha tenido en VIH en la sociedad puertorriqueña amerita que continuamente se refuercen las estrategias de información pública y de concienciación. El Día Nacional Latino para la Concienciación del sida (NLAAD, por sus siglas en inglés) es un gran esfuerzo para alertar a nuestros ciudadanos, como latinos que somos, de la importancia de conocer las formas de prevenir el VIH y de conocer nuestro estatus. Además, la situación política de Puerto Rico crea un constante puente aéreo de intercambio entre los isleños y residentes de los EU creando unos lazos especiales con la comunidad latina dentro de los estados y otros territorios. Aunque las actividades relacionadas al NLAAD está todavía en desarrollo en Puerto Rico, cada año las personas están más consientes de su celebración y de su importancia para erradicar el estigma y discrimen hacia el VIH/sida con la esperanza de que no solo las personas que viven con VIH tengan una vida digna y sin perjuicios, sino que todas las personas que se puedan sentir a riesgo tengan la tranquilidad de acceder a conocer su estatus de VIH y entrar en tratamientos de así necesitarlo.

En Coaí, Inc., durante los últimos 7 años, el programa Aché ha estado realizando pruebas de detección de anticuerpos al VIH y educación en salud & reducción de riesgos. Con los fondos de AIDS United nuestro programa puede reclutar a HSH (negativa a riesgo de VIH o positivos) a participar de un modelo preventivo conocido como Muchos Hombres, Muchas Voces (3MV). A través de este modelo las personas adquieren conocimiento y herramientas para prevenir o reducir el daño al contagio del VIH. Nos sirve, además, como vehículo para reforzar en nuestros participantes la importancia de hacerse la prueba. Por eso, en conmemoración del NLAAD, nuestro programa estará distribuyendo condones, información y realizando pruebas de VIH en lugares donde socializa la población que servimos el 20 de octubre.

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

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.