Dialogues of empowerment through knowledge, prevention as treatment, and the de-stigmatization of HIV/AIDS were at the forefront of a Feb. 7 event at Trinity United Church of Christ that marked the 12th National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. The event featured keynote presentations by representatives of Gilead Sciences, a leading pharmaceutical company in the fight against AIDS, as well as the STI/HIV/AIDS Division of the Chicago Department of Public Health.
The Coalition for Justice and Respect, a civil-rights and social-justice organization for African-American lesbians and gays, sponsored the event. In his opening remarks, Marc Loveless, project coordinator for the coalition, said, "It is by the grace of God that we are coming to the end of HIV/AIDS."
The event's focal presentation by Gilead Sciences representative Staci Bush emphasized the need to de-stigmatize HIV in the African-American community. "HIV now, we have to think of it as a virus, and not a virus of behavior," said Bush, who used data obtained from past studies to illustrate how high viral loads of HIV in African-American communities increases the risk of infection.
Bush sought to dispel the myth of HIV as a gay, predominantly white male disease, citing that over half of new HIV infections occur among African Americans. She added that African Americans are also nine times more likely to not know their HIV-positive status than whites. She went on to stress the importance of African American women as leaders in the fight against the virus, especially given its status as the leading killer of African American women ages 30-34.
In addition to covering prevention-as-treatment methods, such as condom use and regular HIV testing, Bush spoke of biomedical treatments like Truvada. When taken daily, the breakthrough drug was shown in one study to reduce the likelihood of HIV transmissions from positive status adults to their partners by 92 percent.
The event also featured Chris Brown, the outgoing assistant commissioner of the STI/HIV/AIDS Division of the Chicago Department of Public Health. Brown said his division is seeking funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( CDC ) for an outreach initiative that would target young, Black, South Side men who have sex with men ( MSMs ) .
"We've heard over and over again, through community forums and input, that this is a population that is being hit hard not just by HIV, but by syphilis and other infectious diseases," said Brown. "And people want a safe place, a comprehensive space, a kind of community center on the South Side."
Brown explained that beyond providing primary healthcare and HIV testing, the center would encompass a broad scope of social aspects and recreational facilities. The proposed center would also provide outreach to transgender people on the South Side.
"We've got a lot of work to do in the transgender community," said Brown, who went on to stress the importance of gathering data over the next few years to determine how HIV and other diseases are affecting this portion of the African-American community.
This March, the Chicago Department of Health will learn the status of its CDC funding that would make this South Side center a reality. "But even if it doesn't get funded, we need to … figure out how we can do this," said Brown. "I think it's very important for Chicago and I don't want to see just one turned-down proposal end this discussion."
In addition to presentations from keynote speakers like Bush and Brown, National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day included a robust dialogue between various groups within the African-American community. With expertise that ran the gamut from HIV ministry and healthcare administration all the way to LGBTQ activism, each concerned community member provided a unique perspective to a complex issue.
Rev. Anthony Sullivan of the Pillar of Love Fellowship Church said that groups marginalized by HIV/AIDS need to engage in conversation with each other in order to heal relationships within the Black community.
"Grassroots work needs to be done at the basic level. And this is the basic level. You have MSMs [ men who have sex with men ] in this room, you have Black women in this room, and you begin to have dialogue in this room," said Sullivan. "Because until you de-stigmatize the issue that we have with one another … . That's where events like this are beneficial. Because what happens is you can educate, and reeducate, and you begin to heal. And you can't heal if you can't have dialogue."
Kimberly Foster, the adolescent HIV program coordinator at Children's Memorial Hospital, expressed a similar need for increased communication on the topic of HIV/AIDS prevention. Foster said, "We need to open discussion more. … We need to learn how to advocate and how to teach the next generation so we'll have more voices."
Just down the hall in Trinity United, Providence Hospital provided free on-site HIV testing. Sheila Smith, a prevention coordinator, performed the simple test on this reporter. It consisted of the painless swabbing of my gum line, with results available a mere 20 minutes later.
The day ended early that afternoon with a closing prayer, followed by some final words from Loveless. Optimistic yet resolute, Loveless spoke of re-evaluating the way we participate in the ever-changing battle against HIV/AIDS.
"It's not like it was 30 years ago," said Loveless. "We're not 30 years ago. We're not even 20 years ago. Heck, we're not even five years ago. We're today, and we're now."
This story is part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.