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Seeking truth in the war on the coronavirus

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Jewel Thais-Williams said she’d call back. She was on the other line and had been inundated with calls asking how she was doing after eye surgery. Three hours later, the almost 81-year-old LGBTQ icon was pumped, angry, going on and on about conspiracy theories – how “The Eyes of Darkness” had predicted the coronavirus in 1981 and how Donald Trump was using the virus or COVID-19 to spread fear and hate for his own political gain, just like in “The 9th Wave,” a book she read as a 12-year-old that still haunted her. The book is about political machinations that “frighten old people about having what they have now taken away that they vote for this guy.”

And while one eye was patched from surgery that day, the other one was fixed on cable news as President Trump declared a state of emergency.

“How do we really know what’s going on without having tests to let us know?” Jewel asked insistently. And without widespread testing to know if the virus is real and who’s got it where and telling everyone to be afraid and shelter in place and not to have gatherings of more than 10 people, she added, “there are no more protests and law enforcement can just arrest people on the spot.”

“This is happening to keep Trump in office,” Jewel said flatly. “Follow the money. We could have had pop up clinics by now. We could have converted Mobile HIV Testing vans to do coronavirus testing. But instead, Trump meets with bankers and other money men. What’s the alternative motive here?”

It was Tuesday night and former Vice President Joe Biden was cruising to victory in three more Democratic primary states. Jewel was watching that, too. She’d switched from Elizabeth Warren to Michael Bloomberg, then back to Warren but was now fully onboard with Biden.

“He’s the same decent, honest guy who looked me in the eye when we were talking,” she says, recalling their meeting at a White House Pride party. “Eyes are the window of the soul and that was the biggest thing between me and Joe – the dude is real. That’s what I see.”

The phone call ended agreeing to disagree about conspiracy theories. But the next day, March 18, Trump took to the White House podium and insisted that the virus came from China, so it is “the Chinese virus,” a term he declared is “not racist at all.

Trump – a man who used “bone spurs” as an excuse to avoid service during the Vietnam War – also declared himself a “wartime president” in this war on the coronavirus, saying he was invoking the Defense Production Act “in case we need it.”

The Korean War-era law enable presidents “to take extraordinary action to force American industry to ramp up production of equipment needed for national security,” according to Time.com.

Knowing Trump listens to right-wing conspiracy theorists,  it looks like Jewel Thais-Williams’ network of sources may not have been that far off. The plot of “Eyes of the Darkness” involves a Chinese military lab that manufactures a deadly virus in Wuhan city. Snopes confirmed the book passage but debunked the prediction of the virus.

Eerily, however, this theory feels like it could hatch into something akin to the fabricated “weapons of mass destruction” fiction that had America launch a first “Shock and Awe” strike against a foreign country and start the war against Iraq. In fact, Axios reported March 21, that U.S.-China tensions hit a dangerous new high, worrying many.

Meanwhile, a website called “Stop AAPI Hate” has been launched in the Bay Area to document hate crimes against Asians Americans and Pacific Islanders, including a Los Angeles boy attacked at his middle school.  “We are currently providing support to a child who had to go to the emergency room after he was assaulted and accused by bullies of having the coronavirus, and so that tells us we may need to work with schools to address shunning and school bullying but we need to know how widespread it is,” said Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of A3PICON, told NBC/Bay Area.

The bottom line: with a president who consistently, boldly and unabashedly lies for his own self-aggrandizement, how is the American public supposed to believe anything Trump says – about anything, let alone a very real new virus that is claiming thousands of lives across the globe?

All the respected experts say “test, test, test” to find out where the virus is being spread. But the administration has failed on every front: containment is no longer applicable and mitigation is voluntary, though with Gov. Newsom’s official Order to stay home, law enforcement will now be looking for violators, according to the LA County Emergency Operations – but what happens next is unclear.

And yet, the American people themselves seem to be taking on the historic and mighty task bungled by the Trump administration, helping each other and helping non-profits help others, as well, such as volunteers showing up for Project Angel Food to prepare and deliver food to homebound people with life-threatening illnesses.

“Charity is often a vital first line of defense or the critical resource of last resort for families that struggle with food insecurity in America.  It is, however, inadequate to meet the daily needs of 40 million Americans who are food insecure,” Abby Leibman CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, tells the Los Angeles Blade.

“The Federal Government has the most crucial role in ensuring that people have access to adequate resources to feed themselves and their families through its nutrition safety net programs, particularly SNAP. Even at the best of times those resources are stretched thin and in this time of crisis, they are getting further stretched just as they become more vital.  The current Administration has done everything in its power to DECREASE access to these benefits, in a shameful response to people who have been struggling and those made newly food insecure by the pandemic,” she says.

Empty grocery shelves (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

“Those who are more vulnerable, face even more barriers, particularly seniors, including LGBT seniors which is why MAZON funded a soon-to-be-released study with the Williams Institute to look into the matter of LGBT senior food insecurity,” Liebman says.  “For them, issues of stigma, lack of family support, lack of access to traditional employment and its benefits, drive far too many into poverty as they age.  Our Federal Government can do better, it must do better.”

Food and hunger are issues everywhere. Bamby Salcedo, founder and director of [email protected] Coalition, says she is still continuing the organization’s lunch program, but limiting other services.

TruEvolution CEO Gabriel Maldonado being honored by Assemblymember Cervantes and the California LGBT Legislative Caucus last June in Sacramento. (Photo via Maldonado’s Facebook page)

TruEvolution CEO Gabriel Maldonado says his organization has been hit hard.

“TruEvolution has canceled our all of our community and educational events for the next until April 15, 2020. We are going to re-evaluate any events taking place subsequently at that time. In addition, our strongest HIV testing partner, UC Riverside, has either postponed or canceled all campus events, including our HIV testing events,” he tells the Los Angeles Blade.

“We are very much concerned about the impact that this will have on our organization’s ability to provide services, and outreach to our clients,” Maldonado says. “Many of our clients rely on our storefront services for food, housing, and support groups. We are suspending our drop-in hours and will be providing virtual or appointment-only services. Last night, we had a client contact us at 2:00 AM who lost his job and was sleeping in his car as of this week. Much of the paperwork must be done and completed in-person and we also need to meet with him to successful link him into emergency housing. Business must continue. Clients have the same issues before the pandemic, and both social and medical services are even more critical now than before.”

Maldonado says the organization will be offering “walk-up services” during their support group hours and will be providing our clients with a hot meal, water, sanitizer, county resources and FAQs on COVID-19.

Still, confusion reigns.

“This is serious. We have an emergency,” trusted Rep. Maxine Waters told MSNBC. “We have a real serious problem with testing. First of all, we have so many people who need testing who can’t get testing.”

Waters, a political powerhouse and the first woman and first African-American Chair of the House Financial Services Committee, is a longtime LGBTQ ally, having been in Los Angeles and elected to Congress during the Second Wave of AIDS. The story she told MSNBC is akin to thousands of other stories of people or friends of people who have been sick or frightened and looking for help, found none. Her friend, at least, has powerful friends.

“I have a friend that I happened to call today,” she told MSNBC on March 13, “and she had gone to UCLA after having real symptoms. They gave her a test for influenza and then told her she didn’t have influenza. And she said, ‘What about the coronavirus tests?’ And they said they were not giving that test. She called a friend who has great influence and they told her to stay there, don’t leave,” Waters said.

“And this friend with great influence at UCLA forced them to give her the test. So, they gave her the test, but they couldn’t give her the results in any short period of time. So, they sent her home,” Waters continued.

“When I talked to her at home, she was in great pain, had terrific headaches, coughing and a fever. And she was waiting on the results from the test that they had been forced to give her at UCLA.”

Waters paused. “I don’t know what’s happening. I’ve got to check back to see if she ever got the results of that test,” she said. “But I do know this: she and her daughter are basically alone and I had to inquire about – did she have food in the house, or what was going on? She said someone was going to bring some food and leave it on the doorstep.”

This, Waters says, “is a situation, I think, that is typical of what is happening in this country. Unfortunately, we were not prepared. The greatest country in the world was not prepared for this pandemic.”

Not unexpectedly, having dealt directly with the Trump administration, Waters knows many people do not trust Trump.

“One of the problems that we have is that there’s not a lot of trust from the average American in the president of the United States,” she says. “Unfortunately, he has been documented to have lied so many times, to distort, to change the story.”

But lack of credible leadership results in real harm to real people in real time – and that time is now.

“I am worried about people with low income and the minimum wages that are going to be stopped from work. They’re not going to have jobs. They’re going to be fired. The business is going to close down, and they don’t have anywhere to go,” Waters says. “So, we’ve got to make sure that for those who do have unemployment insurance, that we expand that and that is what is being looked at….We’ve got to make sure that we give additional support to Medicaid and that was being proposed….So, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Another political powerhouse who is also a strong friend to the LGBTQ community is Rep. Adam Schiff, who represents Burbank to West Hollywood. As the leader of the House Impeachment committee, he has been getting very real death threats. Now he is facing another threat and is practicing the recommended “self-isolation” at home with his family after his lead investigator, counselor Daniel Goldman, recently tested positive for the coronavirus.

“I would be taking precautions anyway to limit my social interactions,” Schiff tells the Los Angeles Blade in a phone interview. “First, we began canceling large events, and then we began canceling smaller events, doing constituent meetings by phone instead of in-person. I scaled way back on my travel plans, and I think we had to cancel all of my constituent meetings before the situation with Dan, but I’m taking some additional precautions,” he says, adding that Goldman was likely infected after he left Schiff’s office in early March. “But out of an abundance of caution, we’re still being careful.”

At a tele-townhall on March 19, Schiff said he completed his self-isolation and has been working on getting relief for freelancers in the entertainment industry, in particular. He spent most of the call discussing testing, financial relief for unemployed and small business owners, including the prospect of forgivable loans.

“We’re going to be looking at what’s necessary so that people who cannot make their rent payment or their mortgage payments or have some kind of suspension – and also to make sure that none of this effects people’s credit in the long run because this is a pandemic that’s effecting us all, no matter how good someone’s planning may have been. We’re all in this boat together.” Schiff said.

“The main point in the stay home requirement is not so much because food is somehow limited or we need to ration but rather we want to make sure that people don’t unnecessarily expose others to the virus. The whole point there – and this gets to the expression these days about ‘flattening the curve’ – if we can slow down the progress of the virus, it means that our hospitals will be able to deal with the intake, that they can get through the current shortages of protective gear, that they can get through the current lack of sufficient numbers of ventilators. If, on the other hand, we don’t take these rather extraordinary steps, then we’re going to have an explosion of cases, our healthcare system is going to be inundated, there won’t be enough ventilators, for example, to go around, and there will be an unnecessary loss of life. And that’s really the point of social distancing, the point of staying home.”

Schiff will be holding another tele-townhall on March 26, details of which will be posted on his website and Facebook page.

As have many others, Schiff has noted the oddity of having Trump onstage with Vice President Mike Pence [who finally submitted to testing with his wife on March 21 after a staffer tested positive] clumped together with his coronavirus team for photos and television – and not exhibiting the social distancing of three-to-six feet they insist on for others.

“It is incongruous to hear the president talk about social distancing while he’s not social distancing. And people are standing around him and he’s leaning over to whisper to Mike Pence,” Schiff tells the Los Angeles Blade.

“There’s kind of a conflicting message, especially with what we’re saying. But it is certainly important to note that the degree that we are able to take precautions now and do sensible social distancing will significantly flatten the curve at which this virus spreads and help protect those with compromised health, or seniors.”

The significance of social distancing, especially with news that the infection can be spread “silently” by people who are asymptomatic, is that individuals must accept responsibility for themselves and prevent serious health consequences that could end up costing a lot of people their lives.

“So here, the public is really empowered to do something major to affect the severity of this crisis by taking some important steps that are going to be difficult for people,” he says. “We’re a social creature and we like going out to restaurants, and we like joining in public places and now we’ve been asked to move away for a period of time. So, things are moving very, very quickly, and steps that we thought were aggressive two weeks ago now, it’s been way too… It’s substantial. And who knows where it will be tomorrow.”

Schiff also took on some more precise question from the Los Angeles Blade on behalf of community agencies regarding the lack of testing, who’s paying for what and housing issues.

“There’s no question that the failure to test early and often has been the single biggest failure in the Administration’s response to this virus, and it’s inexcusable because we knew about it for weeks ahead of time,” Schiff says. “When we emerge from this crisis, the disastrous lack of any testing of patients in the first weeks of this outbreak will need to be the topic of major congressional oversight. Testing is becoming more available, though not fast enough, and it’s currently reserved for patients that are symptomatic and/or were exposed to an individual that has tested positive for the coronavirus.

“As of March 17, the testing capacity in California was 8,000 per day,” he says, noting the passage of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which Trump signed into law March 19. The law makes testing “free for all Americans — and we will continue pushing to increase our testing capacity by getting more tests into production so they will be more widely available. Americans have been fighting blind because of the lack of tests, but I’m hoping this changes immediately.”

Darrel Cummings, Chief of Staff at the LA LGBT Center, asked questions via the Los Angeles Blade before Gov. Newsom issued his Stay at Home Order on March 19.

Cummings notes “community health centers have a role to play with both their current, registered clients and among the communities where there are located.  To effectuate ‘social distancing’ within clinical settings, telemedicine helps but is not always a billable service.  Will you advocate with HRSA so that telemedicine can be billed the same as an in-person visit? The same question applies to mental health and psychiatry visits.”

“Yes,” Schiff says. “Telemedicine has an increased role to play as we try to minimize visits to clinics or hospitals, especially for at-risk patients. The emergency appropriations legislation Congress passed two weeks ago lowered the barriers for telemedicine reimbursement for Medicare patients, which is a good start, but we need to do more. California has asked the federal government for a waiver that would allow reimbursement to community health clinics for telemedicine visits at the same rates as in-person visits, and that is currently pending,” he adds. “I fully support moving as much diagnosis and treatment as we can online right now, because it’s safer for patients and doctors alike, and reduces demand on medical resources.”

Schiff also noted that the Community Clinic Association requested a national emergency declaration so they could be reimbursed for telehealth services. “Given President Trump’s recent declaration, Medicare is reimbursing for telemedicine, but Medicaid reimbursement remains an important issue,” he says, adding that the California Department of Health Care Services sent a request to CMS that would allow telehealth/virtual visits amongst other Covid-19 emergency responses in Medi-Cal. Once that is approved, California can send Medi-Cal dollars to clinics for telehealth.”

Additionally, to help with social distancing and keep clinics a safe area, community health centers have begun pre-screening patients for flu-like symptoms before they enter a facility and are encouraging patients to come in only when necessary.

“Clinics that serve particularly vulnerable populations like the LA LGBT Center, which sees a large immunosuppressed population, will rely on telehealth to help keep their patients safe,” Schiff says. “Drive-through testing has become available at some locations in Northern California to limit potentially infected people from coming into hospitals. I am hopeful drive-through testing will continue to become more widely available, but there is a limitation due to the lack of tests.”

What about support and guidance for organizations that provide housing or services for the homeless, or supportive/affordable housing and for the homeless population in general?

“Our homeless population faces a significant risk to contracting Coronavirus, and the city and state are beginning to step up,” Schiff says. “Gov. Newsom announced that homeless persons would be prioritized as a vulnerable population and the city is beginning to deploy resources directly to the homeless population where they are. But the federal government must also do more and I am advocating that federal assistance for the homeless be dramatically increased –both to deal with the broader epidemic of homelessness, but particularly the unique health risks now presented to this population. Much more must be done, and drastic steps to get people off the streets to create social distance may be necessary.”

AIDS Healthcare Foundation has offered recently purchased 74-room motel that has not yet been leased out as temporary housing for coronavirus patients.

Jeffrey King, founder and executive director of In The Meantime Men, is very direct, raising the issue of having sex during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The coronavirus has us all making major adjustments in our lives,” King says in a video posted on his Facebook page. “I want to encourage you to stay connected, and to consider your risk. Many of us are still engaging in sex. Our sex clubs and gay-specific social venues are closing now. Our social dating apps, however, are in full effect. Again – I want you to consider your risk and to act responsibly.”

King shares information provided by the Commission on HIV in Los Angeles County for individuals living with HIV and their possible concerns regarding the coronavirus.

The Commission advises, in part:

“The novel coronavirus is understood to spread mainly from person-to-person through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes, or when a person touches a surface with these droplets and then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth. Common symptoms in a person with the novel coronavirus infection include fever, dry cough and shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.

 

“Persons living with controlled HIV (i.e. normal CD4 count and undetectable viral load) do not appear to be at greater risk than the general public for either acquiring or becoming ill with the coronavirus.

 

“Persons living with HIV, however, may be at increased risk for an adverse response to the infection if they have: Low CD4 cell counts, particularly under 350 cells/ml (considered not virally suppressed and therefore at higher risk); 60 years of age and older; heart, lung, or kidney disease; other poorly managed health conditions, including hypertension and diabetes.

 

“Public Health recommends that individuals at higher risk for serious illness associated with COVID-19 take the following actions and precautions: Practice regular hand washing (20 seconds with soap and hot water);

 

“Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash and wash your hands. If you do not have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your elbow; Have a 30-day supply of all medications; Remain fully adherent to all regularly prescribed medications; Make sure all your vaccinations are current, including against influenza (“flu”) and pneumonia;

 

“Practice social distancing (this means limiting the time you spend in public and keeping a 6-foot distance between yourself and strangers when you are in public); Stay home if you are even mildly sick; Call your health care provider before seeking medical care so that appropriate precautions can be taken.”

King is pointed and non-judgmental in his Facebook video. “As we engage in sex, I want you to consider the choices and the decisions you’re making as mature adults and to be as responsible and to make sober, conscious decisions. We got this,” he says.

“Many of us have lived through traumatic pandemic experiences to include the introduction of the AIDS virus to America and the Black community,” King tells the Los Angeles Blade. “We will be able to rise above the fear of the unknown relative to this new man-made viral construct we now call the coronavirus. The question remains: will we ever end the coronavirus?

“In The Meantime has cancelled its annual scholarship fundraiser, halted its mobile HIV testing efforts, and we are implementing an amplified sanitation protocol at our facility,” he says. “We will continue to show up for our clients hosting smaller groups implementing social distancing.”

But the too-familiar refrain remains: what’s happening? What’s true? What are the facts? Who can we trust as we bounce between one conspiracy theory and another?

California’s LGBTQ community leaders are striving to be of service and trusted elected leaders are diligently upholding their oath.

Criminal defense attorney and West Hollywood City Councilmember John Duran, for instance, has been posting daily briefings on his Facebook page.

Map via the LA Times coronavirus tracker

After LA County released new data showing demographics and location for coronavirus cases, on March 21, Duran posted his assessment, which reads, in part:

LA County cases: 292 (up from 231)
LA County deaths: 2 (up from 1)

Demographics to date:
Children – 4 cases
Ages 18-40 – 72 cases
Ages 41-65 – 82 cases
Over age 65 – 34

West Hollywood cases – 15
Brentwood cases – 16
Long Beach – 12
Melrose district – 11
Encino – 8
Hollywood – 7
Sherman Oaks – 6
Pacific Palisades – 6
Beverly Hills – 5
Manhattan Beach – 5

 

Those are the top numbers in LA County. WHAT? HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE? HOW CAN IT BE THAT THESE COMMUNITIES HAVE MORE REPORTABLE CASES THAN THE OTHER DENSE PARTS OF THE COUNTY LIKE DOWNTOWN, KOREATOWN, HUNTINGTON PARK?

 

First – the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is saying – it doesn’t matter. There are no “safer” or “more dangerous” parts of the community.

 

But remember – these stats are cases reported today – but likely infected one or two weeks ago. And remember that anyone infected today – won’t be reported until one or two weeks from now.

 

OR NOT TESTED AND REPORTED AT ALL. NOT REPORTED AT ALL.

 

LA County is now advising doctors to give up on TESTING patients in the hope of containing the virus. Doctors are being told to only test patients if a positive result could change how they would be treated.

 

The numbers showing the communities with the highest number of reported cases are places where people have a bit more income, a bit more education and a bit more aggression (?). Look at that list once again. Those are places where individuals and communities tend to have the resources and the aggression to get results.

 

And they did.

 

Look at the age demographics also. The highest number are neither the very young or the very old. They are the age ranges where people would tend to be working and have access to health care and testing. There are many different lenses to look at data and think about it.

 

BUT IT DOES RAISE THE QUESTION – SHOULD WE BE THINKING ABOUT THIS AT ALL RIGHT NOW? I say no.

 

Remember how during the discussions about earthquakes we were warned that for the first three days after the cataclysm – you were on your own while government was gearing up with a response. You had to be self reliant and self sustaining.

 

Well – this cataclysm – is still shaking. It hasn’t stopped yet. We are on the front end of the cataclysm not the aftershocks. When the big quakes hit – how many of us are thinking at that moment – but what about my rent? My job? My future? NOPE. The only question in that moment is AM I GOING TO SURVIVE THIS?

 

That’s where we are. In the midst of the shaking.

 

There will be a time in a couple of weeks (hopefully when the shaking has stopped) to worry about the rebuild and cleaning up the mess. THAT IS NOT NOW.

 

NOW – is about isolating and minimizing social contacts until the Shadow passes. That is all for now. We will have lots of work to do on the other side of the initial hit. And we will work together on that when the time is here….

 

80% of those of us who get exposed to COVID 19 will experience mild to moderate symptoms. It will infect and pass through us and our bodies will create antibodies.

Pray and focus on the other 20% who may need ventilators, hospital beds and treatment. And the possibly 2-3% who may die.

 

But in the meantime, try to stay in the group called DIDN’T get exposed to COVID 19 in this first wave of cataclysm because I isolated, washed my hands and kept social distancing. I know it’s only the first week of interruption and already we are all feeling restless. But remember –

WE ARE STILL IN THE SHAKING. BRACE YOURSELF. DUCK AND COVER. AND WAIT FOR THE SHAKING TO STOP.

 

The clean up and rebuild will be for another day and time.

 

Onward! Until the next indicated step…..”

In her weekly newsletter, LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl explained why the county took such a difficult decision to issue the “Safer At Home” Order, along with the City of LA and she offered some advice:

“There are a number of creative ways to cope and they are important for our health and sanity:  have an indoor scavenger hunt, work out by watching your gym or others on tv, read one of those many books you bought and put aside, walk around the block (keeping six feet away from everyone—just smile and give virtual hugs and high fives), call someone you haven’t talked to in a while (the former President of the CA Senate, John Burton, who was my seatmate in the Senate, called me out of the blue last night just to talk), dig up that old Monopoly set and buy Park Avenue, and, of course, keep informed.

 

For lots of up-to-date, accurate information about COVID-19 in LA County, regularly visit lacounty.gov/covid19.

 

Thank you all for everything you’re doing, and you can bet I will continue to send updates as they come in.

 

Together, we can get through this by doing our part to “flatten the curve”.

 

As Hill Street Blues Sgt. Esterhaus used to say, “Hey, let’s be safe out there!””

And, as Gov. Newsom tweets:

AIDS and HIV

President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief marks year 20

Achievements PEPFAR have been remarkable, well-documented by outside evaluators, and hugely applauded throughout the advocacy community

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President George W. Bush signing PEPFAR’s authorizing legislation January 28, 2003. (Photo Credit: George W. Bush Presidential Center)

WASHINGTON – The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) marks its twenty year anniversary today, marking the largest commitment by any nation to address a single disease in the world.

The initiative which was personally led and launched by former President George W. Bush in 2003,  its funding has totaled more than $110 billion to date, including funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (Global Fund), to which the U.S. government is the largest donor.

PEPFAR is credited with saving millions of lives and helping to change the trajectory of the global HIV epidemic.  The White House today released a statement by President Joe Biden marking the 20th Anniversary:

Twenty years ago today, President George W. Bush declared that preventing and treating HIV/AIDS was a foreign policy priority of the United States. At a time when nearly 30 million people were HIV positive, but very few were receiving life-saving medicines, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) transformed the global AIDS response and laid a marker for America’s commitment to countries that were impacted the hardest by the AIDS epidemic. Helping lead the bipartisan effort in Congress to authorize PEPFAR is among my proudest achievements from my time in the Senate. To this day, PEPFAR remains a powerful example of America’s unmatched ability to drive progress and make life better for people around the world.
 
Since 2003, PEPFAR has saved more than 25 million lives and dramatically improved health outcomes in more than 55 partner countries. AIDS-related deaths have declined by 68 percent since their peak in 2004, and new HIV infections are down 42 percent. PEPFAR investments have ensured that 5.5 million babies have been born HIV-free. And two decades of investment in partner nations’ health systems played a critical role in countries’ ability to respond to other health crises such as COVID-19, Mpox, and Ebola.    
 
Today, PEPFAR continues to support 20.1 million people around the world with HIV/AIDS treatment, and my Administration is committed to continuing to lead the global HIV/AIDS response. We will build on our decades of progress to reach the Sustainable Development Goal of ending AIDS by 2030, work to eliminate the stigma and inequities that keep people from accessing care, and keep the voices of people living with HIV/AIDS at the center of our response.  I look forward to working with Congress on PEPFAR’s reauthorization this year.

PEPFAR is overseen by the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, who is appointed by the President, confirmed by the Senate, and reports directly to the Secretary of State, as established through PEPFAR’s authorizing legislation.

PEPFAR’s original authorization established new structures and authorities, consolidating all U.S. bilateral and multilateral activities and funding for global HIV/AIDS. Several U.S. agencies, host country governments, and other organizations are involved in implementation.

Dr. John Nkengasong, the current coordinator was sworn in on June 13, 2022, and holds the rank of Ambassador leading the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator (OGAC) at the U.S. Department of State.

Nobel Prize winning scientist Harold Varmus, who served as Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from 1993 to 1999 and currently the Lewis Thomas University Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, wrote in an article honoring World Aids Day 2013:

[…] “the PEPFAR story must begin with George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, and their interests in AIDS, Africa, and what Bush termed “compassionate conservatism.” According to his 2010 memoir, Decision Points, the two of them developed a serious interest in improving the fate of the people of Africa after reading Alex Haley’s Roots and visiting The Gambia in 1990.3 In 1998, while pondering a run for the U.S. presidency, he discussed Africa with Condoleezza Rice, his future secretary of state; she said that, if elected, working more closely with countries on that continent should be a significant part of his foreign policy. She also told him that HIV/AIDS was a central problem in Africa but that the United States was spending only $500 million per year on global AIDS, with the money spread across six federal agencies, without a clear strategy for curbing the epidemic.”

Key Facts (As provided by Kaiser Health & Family Foundation)

  • Although the U.S. has been involved in efforts to address the global AIDS crisis since the mid-1980s, the creation of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in 2003 marked a significant increase in funding and attention to the epidemic.
  • PEPFAR is the largest commitment by any nation to address a single disease in the world; to date, its funding has totaled more than $110 billion, including funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (Global Fund), to which the U.S. government is the largest donor. PEPFAR is credited with saving millions of lives and helping to change the trajectory of the global HIV epidemic.
  • U.S. funding for PEPFAR grew from $2.2 billion in FY 2004 to $7.0 billion in FY 2022; FY 2022 funding includes $5.4 billion provided for bilateral HIV efforts and $1.6 billion for multilateral efforts ($50 million for UNAIDS and $1.56 billion for the Global Fund).
  • As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have profound effects across the world, PEPFAR has acted to respond to COVID-19 in countries that receive support in order to minimize HIV service disruptions and leverage the program’s capabilities to address COVID-19 more broadly.
  • Looking ahead, PEPFAR faces several issues and challenges, including how best to: address the short- and long-term impacts of COVID-19 on PEPFAR and the HIV response; accelerate progress toward epidemic control in the context of flat funding; support and strengthen community-led responses and the sustainability of HIV programs; define its role in global health security and broader health systems strengthening efforts; and continue to coordinate with other key players in the HIV ecosystem, including the Global Fund.

Key Activities and Results (As provided by Kaiser Health & Family Foundation)

PEPFAR activities focus on expanding access to HIV prevention, treatment, and care interventions. These include provision of antiretroviral treatment, pre-exposure prophylaxis, voluntary male circumcision, condoms, and other commodities related to HIV services. In addition, PEPFAR has launched specific initiatives in key strategic areas. For example, in 2015, PEPFAR launched DREAMS, a public-private partnership that aims to reduce HIV infections in adolescent girls and young women.

The latest results reported by PEPFAR indicate that it has:

  • supported testing services for 63.4 million people in FY 2021;
  • prevented 2.8 million babies from being born with HIV, who would have otherwise been infected;
  • provided care for more than 7.1 million orphans and vulnerable children (OVC);
  • supported training for nearly 300,000 new health care workers; and
  • supported antiretroviral treatment for 18.96 million people.
  • In the 15 countries implementing the DREAMS initiative, new diagnoses among adolescent girls and young women have declined with most DREAMS areas (96%) experiencing declines greater than 25% and nearly two-thirds with declines greater than 40%.

The achievements of the PEPFAR program have been remarkable, well-documented by outside evaluators, and hugely applauded throughout the advocacy community and the developing world. In general, milestones have been met, the program has been enlarged (for instance, to include some research on implementation of medical assistance), the roster of PEPFAR countries has grown and spending plans have not been exceeded.

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AIDS and HIV

FDA eases blood donation restrictions for gay & bisexual men

The FDA’s proposal would lift the mandatory three-month deferral period for some men who have sex with men

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FDA headquarters (Photo Credit: U.S. Government/GSA)

SILVER SPRING, Md. – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) introduced a proposed change to its blood donation guidelines on Friday that would ease restrictions for gay and bisexual men.

The FDA notes the proposal, news of which was first reported in November, would bring U.S. policies in alignment with those in place in countries like the U.K. and Canada. The agency is expected to formally adopt the new guidelines after a public comment period.

The move follows criticism from LGBTQ groups and organizations like the American Medical Association (AMA) who have long argued the current policy is homophobic and based on an outdated understanding of the risks associated with blood donation by men who have sex with men.

As the AMA wrote of the current policy: “a man who has protected sex with another man in the three months prior to a blood donation cannot be a donor, but a man or woman who has unprotected sex with multiple partners of the opposite sex over the same time period remains eligible.”

The FDA’s proposal would lift the mandatory three-month deferral period for some men who have sex with men and instead use a “gender-inclusive, individual risk-based questions relevant to HIV risk.”

Potential donors would be asked for information about their sexual history over the past three months. Respondents who indicate they have had sex with one or more new sexual partners would then be asked whether they have had anal sex during this period. Those who answer “yes” would be deferred from blood donation.

Axios noted that as of this morning, about 20 percent of the country’s community blood centers have a one-day supply or less, while the FDA’s broadened eligibility criteria would increase the annual blood supply by two to four percent, citing data from America’s Blood Centers’ daily tracker and the Williams Institute.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) issued a statement celebrating the FDA’s proposal. “As I have long advocated for, this blood donation policy takes a step forward and is better rooted in the most up-to-date science with a focus on individual risk factors, not outdated stigmas that effectively ban gay and bisexual men,” she said.

Baldwin has repeatedly urged the agency to revisit its blood donation policy over the years, including by corralling support from other members of Congress to cosign letters to the FDA in 2014 and 2016, raising the issue again in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated shortages in the blood supply.

The Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus also acknowledged the move in a statement by its chair, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.): “I am glad the FDA is finally moving toward an individual risk-based assessment model, but recognize, based on existing reporting, that many LGBTQI+ people may still be barred from donating,” he said. “I look forward to taking a closer look at the proposed guidelines once they are published and working with the FDA to ensure that any unnecessary barriers are removed.”

Several LGBTQ groups also issued statements celebrating the FDA’s new guidance.

“These changes are 40-plus years in the making, and are a tremendous leap forward toward elevating science over stigma,” said GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis. “GLAAD and leading medical experts have long been advocating for guidelines that see and treat LGBTQ people the same as any other person, including as potential donors who want to help others.”

“This new policy removes a decades-long barrier for many in our community – and there is more to do to ensure gay, bisexual and transgender people are no longer unfairly stigmatized when they try to donate blood,” Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson said. “The assessment criteria have flaws, focusing excessively, for instance, on the number of partners a potential donor has instead of just on new partners,” she added.

Carl Schmid, executive director of the HIV+ Hepatitis Policy Institute, said: “While this long-overdue change is being made based on the science and the facts, which have been clear for years, it is the result of the leadership of the Biden administration that continues to tear down discriminatory government policies.”

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Experimental HIV vaccine failure, deemed safe but ineffective

“We remain steadfast in our commitment to advancing innovation in HIV & hope the data from Mosaico will provide insights for future efforts”

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HIV (Photo Credit: National Institutes of Health)

BETHESDA, Md. – A clinical trial of an investigational HIV vaccine regimen, being conducted in partnership with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) by Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies and global partners of parent company Johnson & Johnson dubbed “Mosaico,” was discontinued.

In an announcement made Wednesday, NIAID said the HIV vaccine regimen tested among men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender people was safe but did not provide protection against HIV acquisition, an independent data and safety monitoring board had determined.

A spokesperson for Johnson & Johnson noted in light of the board’s determination, the Mosaico clinical trial will be discontinued. Participant notifications and further analyses of the data are underway. Throughout the trial, study investigators have ensured that any individuals who contracted HIV received prompt HIV treatment and care.

Both Johnson & Johnson and NIAID stressed that no safety issues with the vaccine regimen were identified.

“We are disappointed with this outcome and stand in solidarity with the people and communities vulnerable to and affected by HIV,” said Penny Heaton, M.D., Global Therapeutic Area Head, Vaccines, Janssen Research & Development, LLC. “Though there have been significant advances in prevention since the beginning of the global epidemic, 1.5 million people acquired HIV in 2021 alone, underscoring the high unmet need for new options and why we have long worked to tackle this global health challenge. We remain steadfast in our commitment to advancing innovation in HIV, and we hope the data from Mosaico will provide insights for future efforts to develop a safe and effective vaccine. We are grateful to our Mosaico partners and the study investigators, staff and participants.”

Janssen Vaccines & Prevention sponsored the Mosaico study with funding support from NIAID, part of the National Institutes of Health. The trial was conducted by the NIAID-funded HIV Vaccine Clinical Trials Network, based at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. The U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command provided additional study support.

The Phase 3 Mosaico Study:

Mosaico, a Phase 3 study of Janssen’s investigational HIV vaccine regimen, began in 2019, and completed vaccinations in October 2022. The study included approximately 3,900 cisgender men and transgender people who have sex with cisgender men and/or transgender people, who represent groups and populations vulnerable to HIV, at over 50 trial sites in Argentina, Brazil, Italy, Mexico, Peru, Poland, Puerto Rico, Spain and the United States.

The study evaluated an investigational vaccine regimen containing a mosaic-based adenovirus serotype 26 vector (Ad26.Mos4.HIV) administered during four vaccination visits over one year. A mix of soluble proteins (Clade C/Mosaic gp140, adjuvanted with aluminum phosphate) was also administered at visits three and four.

The Mosaico DSMB analysis, based on the data available to date, indicated that the regimen does not protect against HIV and the study is not expected to meet its primary endpoint. No safety issues with the vaccine regimen were identified. In light of this, the study will be discontinued, and further analyses are underway.

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AIDS and HIV

Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight dazzle World AIDS Day concert 

“As millions remain affected by HIV/AIDS, World AIDS Day provides an opportunity to honor those we’ve lost and those living with HIV/AIDS”

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Patti LaBelle performs onstage during World AIDS Day 2022 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on November 30, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)

WASHINGTON – The AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) hosted its 2022 World AIDS Day Concert on Wednesday, Nov. 30, in the concert hall of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in the nation’s capital.

Renowned multi-Grammy Award-winning vocalists Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight delivered show-stopping performances to the packed crowd, which included supporters, dignitaries such as: Harold Phillips, Director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy; White House Senior Advisor for Public Engagement, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, and New Orleans Mayor, Mayor LaToya Cantrell, and more, in a night of hope and celebration.

The legendary Gladys Knight performs at the Kennedy Center during a free concert hosted by AHF to commemorate World AIDS Day on December 1, 2022, in Washington.
(Joy Asico/AP Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)

AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), is the world’s largest HIV/AIDS care provider, currently operating in 45 countries. The concert is held every year to commemorate World AIDS Day, observed internationally each year on Dec. 1. This year also marked the global organization’s 35th anniversary. 

At the event, longtime humanitarian and AIDS advocate, Princess Diana was honored, posthumously, with AHF’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Under its “Keep the Promise!” banner, AHF also acknowledged progress made in the global fight against HIV and AIDS and continues to raise awareness about “The Other Pandemic” as a reminder of the significant work still to be done on HIV/AIDS, as well as remembering the lives that have been lost over the years.  

Legendary entertainers Patti LaBelle (L) Gladys Knight (C) and AHF President Michael Weinstein, together at The Kennedy Center during a free concert hosted by AHF to commemorate World AIDS Day on December 1, 2022, in Washington.
(Joy Asico/AP Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)

Michael Weinstein, President of AHF, said, “As millions remain affected by HIV/AIDS around the globe, World AIDS Day annually provides an opportunity to honor those we’ve lost and those living with HIV/AIDS today, as well as reminding leaders and the community of the work that still remains to address this epidemic. From providing compassionate AIDS hospice care in those darkest early days to growing to become the largest global AIDS organization today, now providing lifesaving care and treatment to more than 1.7 million people around the globe, we also celebrate the tireless work of all those who help make today’s AHF possible: our staff, Board, affiliate organizations and affinity groups, friends, family and elected officials and community partners across the globe, but most of all, our clients and patients—with our annual 2022 World AIDS Day event. It was a momentous night to host our World AIDS Day concert at The Kennedy Center for the first time, and welcome back the legendary Patti LaBelle, and have another great American icon, Gladys Knight join us, while also being able to honor the legacy and humanitarian work of the late Princess Diana.”

President of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Michael Weinstein and Director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, Harold Phillips attend World AIDS Day 2022 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on November 30, 2022 in Washington, DC.
(Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)
Congresswoman, Sheila Jackson Lee and Patti LaBelle attend World AIDS Day 2022 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on November 30, 2022 in Washington, DC.
(Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)
Derek J. attends World AIDS Day 2022 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on November 30, 2022 in Washington, DC.
(Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)
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Cleve Jones, activist & founder of AIDS Memorial Quilt honored

National AIDS Memorial hosted observances at the 10-acre Memorial Grove and displaying Quilt in nearly 100 communities throughout the U.S.

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Former San Francisco mayor Art Agnos presents award to Cleve Jones (Photo courtesy of National AIDS Memorial Foundation)

SAN FRANCISCO  – The National AIDS Memorial marked World AIDS Day with a national observance at the 10-acre National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco, honoring AIDS activist and founder of the AIDS Memorial Quilt Cleve Jones with its Lifetime of Commitment Award. 

The two days of events brought together leaders on the front lines of the epidemic for powerful conversations and events focused on “Changing the Pattern for a Future without AIDS,” referencing a major initiative of the Memorial that is bringing the Quilt to the South to address the growing crisis of rising HIV rates amount communities of color and marginalized populations.

Jones, who founded the Quilt thirty-five years ago, was recognized for his visionary leadership, activism, and powerful voice in the fight for health and social justice. He remains an inspirational force for change and action today, standing up without hesitation and using his voice for those who are often overshadowed and not heard.  

U.S. House Speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Cailf.) praised Jones in a special video tribute, saying, “Cleve, you are a force of nature – unshakable in the face of adversity, overflowing with a passion for serving others.”

“When the AIDS crisis tightened its grip on San Francisco – when pain and despair grew rampant – you kept hope alive,” she continued. “You were a shining light in the dark, building community out of grief and spurring action out of anguish. From the halls of power to union halls and picket lines, you have never relented in your mission: empowering the oppressed, tearing down injustice and honoring the dignity and beauty of every person.”

Presenting the award to Jones was former San Francisco mayor and mentor Art Agnos to an audience of more than 600 people from the community who gathered on the eve of World AIDS Day for a gala to support the Memorial’s programs. 

“I’m honored to receive this award, but more importantly I’m so pleased that the Quilt now has a permanent home with the National AIDS Memorial and that it is continuing its mission of activism and justice. One thing I’ve learned is that through hope one finds courage and through courage we find love. Love is at the core of what we do and that is what this Quilt represents,” Jones told the audience gathered.

The National AIDS Memorial worked with local partners from across the country to display hundreds of Quilt sections featuring more than 3,500 individual panels in nearly 100 communities on World AIDS Day. 

The largest Quilt display ever in Alabama is taking place in Montgomery and surrounding areas as part of the memorial’s Change the Pattern initiative. The program, funded through a $2.4 million grant from Gilead Sciences, is organizing quilting workshops, displays and educational programming with Southern AIDS Coalition throughout the Southern U.S.

“On this World AIDS Day, it is inspiring to know that thousands of Quilt panels are on display in communities across the country, touching hearts and minds through the stories represented in the fabric,” said Gilead Sciences Chairman and CEO Daniel O’Day.  “The Quilt’s purpose remains as strong and important today, as it was thirty-five years ago, when the vision of Cleve Jones sparked a powerful movement to advance health and social justice.”

The National AIDS Memorial’s World AIDS Day Observance panelists highlighted the importance of the work being done around the country, the interconnectivity of issues to reach zero, and the importance of education and outreach to at-risk populations during three powerful conversations available for viewing online on the memorial’s website and include: Reflections with Cleve Jones and 35 years of the Quilt; The State of the Epidemic Today with Leaders on the Frontlines; and Young Leaders Making an Impact.

 

Reading of the Names at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco
(Photo courtesy of National AIDS Memorial Foundation)

“As our community comes together this World AIDS Day, it’s hard not to look around and see who’s missing – our friends, lovers, and family we’ve lost over four decades of this horrific, cruel disease,” said National AIDS Memorial CEO John Cunningham. “It always brings tears, and we carry so many emotions, particularly as we think of what could have been. But for me, as a man living with HIV/AIDS, I shift to a brighter space, choosing to look around me, thinking about so many of us still here, living and thriving. Survivors, who have so much to be thankful for, but also a heavy burden to share our own stories and journey, so history never repeats itself.”

He continued, “Today, people are still dying and there should have been a cure long ago. We are angry because bigotry, hate, and stigma persist today in society.  And we carry shame, because communities of color and marginalized populations continue to be disproportionately impacted by HIV and discrimination, and it shouldn’t be this way.  It’s time to change the pattern.”

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AIDS and HIV

Translatinx network helps a resilient community ‘Live Its Truth’

“We’re trying to push ourselves to the next level through community empowerment and leadership development”

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Courtesy of Cristina Herrera

NEW YORK – When Cristina Herrera was 15 years old, she traveled alone from Southern California to the Bronx in pursuit of new life experiences. A native of El Salvador, Cristina thought as a teenager that she was different, but she was unsure about which terminology fully captured her identity.

“I knew that I wasn’t gay,” explains Cristina. “But I couldn’t put into words as to who I was.” 

It was only through connecting with the trans Latinx community in New York that Cristina found herself – and came out as transgender.

When Cristina began her gender transition in the mid-1980s, she says there were barely any employment opportunities for a transgender person. To survive, many immigrant trans women in Cristina’s circle engaged in sex work and became more susceptible to contracting HIV. Policing and arrests of sex workers also put their immigration statuses in peril, and stigma exposed them to violence. It was during this time that Cristina became set on improving the lives of trans Latinx people.

“My community was already informally supporting one another,” she says. “But I wanted to make sure that other people would never have to go through some of the difficult issues I experienced.”

Determined to fulfill this promise, Cristina put herself through college and landed a job at a nonprofit supporting the LGBTQ+ community. She absorbed as much as she could at the organization, but she started to want a bigger influence on how to serve the community that helped find her identity. 

“In 2005, I began dreaming about starting a trans-led, immigrant-led organization,” she says. “My dream came true two years later when I started the nonprofit.”

Today, as the founder and CEO of the advocacy nonprofit Translatinx Network, she serves trans Latinx people in New York City and beyond. The organization, which for the past three years has been a Gilead TRANScend Community Impact Fund grantee, connects people to legal aid, HIV prevention and support groups, and immigration assistance.

In the years since its creation, Cristina and her colleagues have led the charge in providing support and connections for trans Latinx people as they build their communities in the United States.

“Many people in our community went from being in the shadows to becoming documented and getting their green cards or work permits,” she says. “We were showing our community that we don’t have to be stuck – that there’s more to life.”

Cristina is now looking for ways to replicate the success of the organization by gathering information and its outcomes and continuing to expand its services. “We want to stay on the front lines and keep our community healthy and protected,” she says. “We’re trying to push ourselves to the next level through community empowerment and leadership development.”

And Cristina is proud that through her organization’s success, she’s able to serve a population that has historically been left out or forgotten.

“I love any opportunity where I can be there for others,” she says. “I want all of us to be able to live our truth while at the same time fulfill our life goals.”

The preceding article was previously published by [email protected] © 2022 Gilead Sciences, Inc. and is republished with permission.

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AIDS and HIV

Ending HIV-related stigma in the Southern U. S.: Gina’s story

“Stigma is an onion with many layers,” Gina says. “We can really do this – we really can, but we have to address the layers that drive HIV”

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Blossom Chrishelle Brown (Left) with Gina Marie Brown (Photo Credit: Southern AIDS Coalition)

BIRMINGHAM, Al. – Gina Brown has been living with HIV for 27 years and introduces herself as a social worker by training, but an activist by birth. As the Director of Strategic Partnerships and Community Engagement at the Southern AIDS Coalition, she’s working to fight against challenges that she has personally experienced such as homelessness, addiction and abuse, as well as stigma, racism, sexism and ageism.

“Everything that you could think of when it comes to HIV, I’ve experienced,” she says. “When I’m sitting at the table, I’m not just talking with an employee hat on. I’m talking from a community standpoint as a person on the same journey.”

‘Stigma kills’

Stigma can be a significant barrier to receiving HIV care or medical treatment. A 2021 survey by GLAAD and Gilead shows that the U.S. South not only has the highest rates of HIV diagnosis, but it’s also a region that is generally uncomfortable with HIV. Positive test results, in turn, are too often accompanied by secrecy and isolation.

“Stigma kills. I know that sounds like a cliché, but it’s the truth,” Gina says. “It keeps people out of care. It keeps people from taking their medication. It keeps people from disclosing their status. It keeps people from being happy.”

Stigma impacts people everywhere with HIV, but Gina believes in the Southern United States it’s more than just external stigma. “We internalize what people say and think about us. We get caught up in it and actually think those things about ourselves too.” 

The Southern AIDS Coalition, a Gilead grantee, focuses on stigma reduction and culturally appropriate care. Education and public health advocacy are core to the organization’s goals of preventing new transmissions and building a better life for people living with HIV.

Using deliberate language to discuss HIV is one important tool the coalition uses to help dismantle stigma, Gina says.

“You go in the room, and you might have somebody who will stand up and say, ‘I’m HIV.’ And I say, ‘No, you’re living with HIV.’ That’s the first thing, getting people to understand that we are living, we’re not dying, we’re not sick, we’re not all of those things,” she says.

Power of Community: Sharing HIV Experiences

Gina also helps facilitate a program called “Out of the Shadows,” with the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies. The group works to provides a safe space for women in the New Orleans community to share their HIV experiences, improve access to services and overcome feelings of isolation. She says it was her own experience with the community that was critical to helping her regain her confidence after being diagnosed.

“What you see now is not always who I was in this fight. It was people who truly carried me and gave me tools to empower myself. People saw things in me that I never saw in myself,” she says.

Gina now wants to serve as that type of person for those she works with, and she always strives to meet them where they are in their journeys. “If you need to crawl, I will crawl with you. When you start walking, I will walk with you.”

But Gina says with a laugh, “When you start running, you’re on your own because I’m too old to run. I’ll do everything else with you, but I’m not running.”

Ending the HIV Epidemic

Efforts by the Southern AIDS Coalition and other organizations to reduce stigma and discrimination have been highlighted by the United Nations as critical to ending the epidemic. Gina looks with optimism toward the end of the epidemic and the UNAIDS goal to get every community and country on track to end AIDS as a public health threat by 2030. 

“Stigma is an onion with many layers,” Gina says. “We can really do this – we really can, but we have to address the layers that drive HIV.”

The preceding article was previously published by [email protected] © 2022 Gilead Sciences, Inc. and is republished with permission.

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AIDS and HIV

Iconic landmarks in Los Angeles to light up red on World AIDS Day

This year’s theme, “Putting Ourselves to the Test: Achieving Equity to End HIV,” calls out the disproportionate impact across sub-populations

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Los Angeles Blade graphic

LOS ANGELES –  As Angelenos mark World AIDS Day, several prominent landmarks around Los Angeles County– including Union Station, City Hall/Grand Park Fountain, Dignity Health Sports Park, LAX Pylons, and Six Street Viaduct — will switch their evening architectural lighting to all red to increase awareness about HIV/AIDS, show solidarity in the fight against HIV, and honor those who have died due to HIV disease.

World AIDS Day, observed each year on December 1, provides the opportunity to honor and remember the more than 40 million people worldwide, including over 27,000 Los Angeles County (LAC) residents lost to HIV/AIDS since this epidemic began.

This year’s World AIDS Day theme, “Putting Ourselves to the Test: Achieving Equity to End HIV,” calls attention to the disproportionate impact of HIV across sub-populations, particularly across race, gender, sexual orientation and geographic lines. 

Los Angeles County has an estimated 59,400 people living with HIV and in 2021 there were 1,479 new HIV diagnoses reported, mostly among gay men, African-Americans, Latinos, and transgender persons.

“We thank our partners across the community who have been working for decades to increase awareness and prevention of HIV/AIDS and provide services and support for those living with HIV, “and honor those in our communities we lost to this terrible disease,” said Barbara Ferrer, PhD, MPH, MEd, Director of Public Health. “More than anything, as we honor, on World AIDS Day, those in our communities we lost to this terrible disease, we re-commit ourselves to the work to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which continues to disproportionately impact communities of color and the LGBTQ community.”

Public Health works with others to help bring an end to the epidemic by reducing the number of new annual HIV infections, decreasing the number of undiagnosed people living with HIV, and increasing the viral suppression rates among people who are diagnosed with HIV.

Public Health collaborates with a broad cross-section of diverse community partners to implement community-driven outreach and education, community-based HIV/STD testing, linkage to care, intensive street-based case management, and clinic-based services.  Recently, Public Health has spearheaded innovative programming through our many new Ending the HIV Epidemic (EHE) Initiatives (www.lacounty.hiv), expanded HIV testing access through both community-based partners and the  www.takemehome.com testing initiative, ongoing efforts to prevent homelessness among persons living with HIV; enhanced outreach efforts to the transgender community through our TransInLA Instagram and Facebook pages and supporting HIV-positive individuals with accessing lifesaving medication. Research shows that suppressing HIV to undetectable levels virtually eliminates transmission of the virus to sexual partners.

Public Health encourages people to learn more about HIV, know their HIV status, and, if necessary, access free life-saving HIV medications and services.  To learn more about HIV and STDs and locate HIV testing, services, and resources, please visit www.getprotectedla.com and http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/dhsp/

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GLAAD study: Signs of progress in efforts to combat HIV stigma

Some of the conclusions from GLAAD’s study have broader applicability to the stigmatization of other diseases and health conditions

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Stop HIV Stigma (screen capture from CDC's YouTube channel)

NEW YORK – A welcome sign that some progress has been made in efforts to combat stigma, data from a forthcoming study by GLAAD found that Americans have become increasingly comfortable interacting with people who are living with HIV.

GLAAD, the largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization, shared an advance copy of its 2022 State of HIV Stigma Study with the Washington Blade ahead of its release Thursday during World AIDS Day.

The study’s documentation of the substantial increase in the percentage of respondents who said they would feel comfortable interacting with people living with HIV — up from 36 percent in 2020 to 43 percent this year — was hardly the only metric pointing to possible improvements with respect to the stigmatization of HIV in America.

At the same time, other findings in the report present a grimmer picture. As GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis said in a statement, the data underscores the need to “dramatically accelerate public health messaging about HIV and visibility about HIV in the media for it to be understood as the treatable, untransmittable and preventable condition it is.”

Ninety percent of respondents said they believe stigma around HIV persists, Ellis noted. And GLAAD’s study offers some insight into how and why, looking at a variety of different types of evidence.

For example, it documents the prevalence of false and medically inaccurate beliefs about how and to whom the virus is transmitted (revealing that fewer people now believe “only certain groups of people get HIV.”) It assesses the extent to which respondents saw stories in the media about people living with HIV (with only one in three reporting that they had.) And it provides some insight into the relative efficacy of public health messaging around risk reduction strategies (a good sign: Knowledge about the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis for the prevention of HIV has increased.)

Some of the conclusions that can be gleaned from GLAAD’s study have broader applicability to the stigmatization of other diseases and health conditions.

Last month, the group published a summary of its qualitative interviews on stigma, writing: “We heard people mention a few similarities between COVID-19 and HIV as it relates to the stigma that both viruses carry, much of it centered around an initial lack of education, and fear of transmission.”

As Ellis said in her statement about the forthcoming study, “Newly-released data show how stigma, inadequate resources and lack of comprehensive public health messaging set back the fight against HIV during the COVID-19 pandemic and delayed response to the monkeypox virus (mpox) outbreak this year.”

GLAAD has published annual State of HIV Stigma Studies since 2020, a project that is funded by Gilead’s COMPASS initiative. The report can be found on the group’s End HIV Stigma page, with a downloadable PDF available here.

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Biden outlines plan to renew fight against HIV/AIDS

Biden on the eve of World AIDS Day outline ways his administration will fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the U.S. & globally

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White House on World AIDS Day 2021 (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden detailed how his administration plans to improve the lives and health outcomes for people living with HIV/AIDS while strengthening treatment and prevention efforts at home and abroad in a statement published Wednesday on the eve of World AIDS Day.

Proposed healthcare reforms on the domestic agenda included improving access to lifesaving treatments, broadening the use of preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to reduce the rate of new infections, and strengthening efforts to reduce stigma associated with the disease. Biden noted his request for $850 million from Congress to fund these initiatives.  

Policy wise, he highlighted the administration’s pressure on the Armed Forces to sunset rules prohibiting deployments and commissions for servicemembers with HIV, and on state legislatures to repeal HIV criminalization statutes used to prosecute people for exposing others to HIV.

Internationally, the president said, “My administration has also pledged up to $6 billion to the Seventh Replenishment of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria — an initiative that has saved an estimated 50 million lives to date.” He called on other countries to match the pledge “so we can together deliver on the promise of health and well-being for millions around the world.”

“World AIDS Day presents an opportunity to renew America’s commitments to fighting the disease,” Biden said, while also acknowledging the tremendous progress in science, medicine, public health, and other arenas that have made the prospect of an end to AIDS and the worldwide transmission of HIV achievable. “At the same time, while these advancements have saved so many lives, they also exposed longstanding racial and gender-based disparities in access to prevention and care.”

“For the more than 38 million people around the world now living with HIV — especially members of the LGBTQI+ community, communities of color, women, and girls — a diagnosis is still life-altering,” Biden said. “We can do better.”

“As we today honor the 700,000 Americans and 40 million lives lost worldwide to AIDS-related illnesses over the years, we have new hope in our hearts,” the president’s statement concludes. “We finally have the scientific understanding, treatments, and tools to build an AIDS-free future where everyone — no matter who they are, where they come from, or whom they love — can get the care and respect they deserve.”

The full statement is available here.

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