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National AIDS Memorial posts Quilt online mirroring COVID crisis

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The 23rd International AIDS Conference made history when it opened its July 6-11 conference this year. Scientists and AIDS activists were forced to deal with the twin pandemics of both AIDS and the novel coronavirus – both of which severely impact the LGBTQ community.

That prompted many to compare President Donald Trump’s failed response to COVID-19 to President Ronald Reagan’s disastrous neglect of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. From June 1981 to Nov. 2018, more than 700,000 people have died from AIDS in America.

In just four months under Trump, 135,279 people have died from COVID-19, though the number from March 2 to July 9, 2020 may actually be under-reported.

The comparison between the twin pandemics was underscored on May 24 when the New York Times filled its entire front page with the names of those lost as the number approached 100,000 COVID dead.

The gasp heard around the world was similar to the tears shed when the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was unfurled on the Washington Mall in 1993.

The Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was displayed on the Washington Mall during the March on Washington in 1993 (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

This year’s international AIDS conference returned to San Francisco, though under very different circumstances than the explosive 1990 conference where ACT UP demanded urgency and accountability. Because of the coronavirus, AIDS/2020:Virtual (AIDS2020.org) was virtually attended by delegates from 175 countries with talks and debates that included ending systemic racism and how COVID-19 has disrupted HIV/AIDS services, especially for LGBTQ people.

“Epidemics run along the fault lines of inequalities and we can and must close the gaps,” UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima said at the opening news conference.

Byanyima presented findings from the UNAIDS 2020 Global AIDS Update report, Seizing the Moment: Tackling entrenched inequalities to end epidemics. World Health Organization Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also presented findings of a new WHO survey showing significant disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic in access to HIV treatment. Recently, WHO confirmed that COVID-19 is an airborne virus.

“A survey of 13,562 people in 138 countries conducted from mid-April until mid-May showed that COVID-19 is having a devastating impact on the LGBTI+ community worldwide,” according to an AIDS/2020:Virtual press release. “Nearly half the survey participants faced economic difficulty, with many unable to meet their basic needs, skipping meals or reducing meal sizes. Further, nearly half of those who were working expected to lose their employment in the wake of the pandemic, and 13% had already lost their jobs. Of concern, 26% of participants living with HIV reported that they had experienced interrupted or restricted access to refills of antiretroviral treatment.”

Additionally, the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis has forced 1% of survey respondents into sex work with the reduced ability to negotiate safer sex. 

“The findings of this survey are deeply concerning,” Tedros said. “We cannot let the COVID-19 pandemic undo the hard-won gains in the global response to this [HIV/AIDS] disease.” 

Meanwhile, on July 6 at the White House, the same day the AIDS conference opened, Trump spun a Twitter storm about confederate statues, China, NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace, the “Sanctuary City card,” “angry, violent, criminal mobs taking over certain (Democrat run) cities,” the NASDAQ, the Washington Redskins & Cleveland Indians, opening schools, and spouted more dangerous COVID-19 lies about hydroxychloroquine, the success of US testing and “lowest” mortality rate.

Trump not only failed to acknowledge the International AIDS Conference – he went one cruel step further, as the State Dept. “notified the [UN] Secretary-General … of its withdrawal from the World Health Organization, effective on 6 July 2021,” NPR reported. 

Two days later, on July 8, the US reported more than 3 million COVID-19 cases and 134,000 reported deaths, though how many of those deaths are LGBTQ is still unknown as LGBTQ data collection has not been an urgent priority.

The tale of two pandemics did not escape the attention of the San Francisco-based National AIDS Memorial.

Coinciding with the AIDS conference, the non-profit that oversees the AIDS Memorial Quilt launched a new interactive website displaying the entire 48,000 Quilt panels online, as well as a new initiative to collect and share stories about those who died and those impacted over the 40 years of the AIDS pandemic.

The timing is ironically important as State Sen. Scott Weiner and Equality California indicate in pressing for LGBTQ data collection during the COVID crisis – lack of which they explicitly tie to Reagan’s neglect of AIDS.

“We know that COVID-19 is harming the LGBTQ community, but because no data is being collected, we’re hamstrung in making the case to devote attention and resources,” Wiener said before introducing SB 932. “The history of the LGBTQ community is a history of fighting against invisibility. Without data, we quickly become an invisible community and risk being erased. California must lead and collect this critical health data.”

Fearing erasure is precisely why gay activist Cleve Jones started the AIDS Quilt in 1987.

“Within just a few years, almost everyone I knew was dead or dying or caring for someone who was dying. And one of the things that frightened me and led really to the creation of the quilt was my fear that all of these people would just disappear, that their stories would not be known,” Jones said during a Zoom news conference July 6. “And my friends were such remarkable people and I wanted them to be remembered….Now when we look at the complexities of COVID-19, there are just so many parallels — the importance of testing; the significant racial disparities that we’re seeing; the importance of community action; the difficulties, the challenges of persuading people to modify their behavior in ways that can save lives. So, I think it just underscores that this Quilt still has a role to play.”

Jones added:

“The Quilt was never intended to be a passive Memorial. The Quilt was about revealing the lives and the humanity behind the statistics. It was about shaming a government whose inaction had created such a catastrophe. It was a tool for the media to help them understand how the disease was spreading and communities that it was affecting. So, uh, it was never intended to be just a passive thing. And today, as we see people hoping for a vaccine, hoping for a cure, it brings back a lot of very painful memories for me — and I think all of us. This is just bringing back a lot of really, really difficult memories — but those are exactly the memories we need to keep in the front of our minds right now, as we endeavor to face this new challenge.”

Honoring and mourning a person lost to AIDS (Photo by Karen Ocamb, 1993)

John Cunningham, Executive Director of the National AIDS Memorial, underscored the importance of honoring and telling the stories of those lost and inspire a new generation to take action.

“We do have a pandemic we’re in the middle of right now and there are lessons that we can carry forward to bring about solutions,” said Cunningham. “And I think the most profound one is for us to ensure that we stand up and that we take action and become activists as we were back in the day, to hold our elected officials in our government responsible for the inaction that they are taking at the present time for stigmatizing a virus as was done in the early days of the epidemic.”

Turning the actual tactile fabric of The Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt into a metaphor, Cunningham said: “That’s part of what’s in the fabric of our nation — challenging the bases of power to bring about profound change in our society.”

(Lead photo via Wikipedia)

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AIDS and HIV

HBCUs receive millions to address HIV inequalities in South

“We believe that education and advocacy will enable us to identify new strategies that will make an impact on infection rates”

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Photo courtesy of Morehouse College/Facebook Chase Brathwaite; Class of' 24, a rising junior sociology major in gender & families pre-med

FOSTER CITY, Calif. – Two Southern historically Black colleges (HBCUs) will receive millions of dollars from biopharma giant Gilead Sciences Inc. to address the HIV epidemic in the region, which has become the epicenter of the virus in the U.S.

The Foster City, Calif.-based company will announce Wednesday $4.5 million for programs at Morehouse College in Atlanta and Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans to address structural barriers Black people face in getting HIV testing, treatment and ongoing care, officials told the Los Angeles Blade. Gilead is a leader in HIV treatments. 

The South has become the epicenter for HIV in the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It also “lags behind in providing quality HIV prevention services and care,” the agency said. 

Though cases have dropped in recent years, the region continues to have the country’s highest rate of new HIV diagnoses – sitting at 15.2 per 100,000 people in 2019, according to the CDC. Most cases occur in Black men who have sex with men

The Gilead donations will go toward addressing HIV inequities and closing gaps in care in Atlanta, New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La., officials said. Specifically, according to the announcement, the $4.5 million will help the HBCUs: 

  • Increase access and utilization of culturally competent healthcare to Black people impacted by the HIV epidemic. 
  • Gain insight into the disruption of the healthcare delivery system due to COVID-19 in the Black community and realigning HIV services in the current climate.
  • Provide training focused on culturally competent HIV care. 
  • Engage early with experienced clinicians practicing in Black communities in the three cities.

The Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine will receive $2.5 million and the Center for Minority Health and Health Disparities Research and Education at Xavier University of Louisiana’s College of Pharmacy will get $2 million over three, a Gilead official said. The company said there is a potential to continue funding and expanding the project based on the outcomes.

Rashad Burgess, vice president of advancing health and Black equity at Gilead, said the drugmaker landed on the two schools because the two “have been leading efforts ensuring positive health outcomes and advancing health equity for Black communities in the U.S. South, across the nation and around the globe.”

“Both schools also have a track record of results,” he said. 

Xavier, a Catholic institution, and Morehouse, a men’s school, have made recent strides with the LGBTQ community. Last year, Xavier hosted its first ever Pride week, which students heralded as a “big deal.” In 2019, Morehouse said it would open admissions to transgender men. (The school still bans anyone who identifies as a woman from enrolling.)

Jareese Stroud, project director of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute in the Morehouse School of Medicine, said strategic partnerships like Gilead’s “are critical to improving health outcomes among Black Americans.” 

In a statement to the Blade, Kathleen Kennedy, dean of the Xavier University of Louisiana College of Pharmacy, added: “We believe that education and advocacy will enable us to identify new strategies that will make an impact on infection rates and the overall health care of patients living with HIV and AIDS.”

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AIDS and HIV

HIV speeds up body’s aging within three years after initial infection

Living with HIV infection is associated with early onset of aging-related chronic conditions, sometimes described as accelerated aging

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An immune cell infected with HIV (Photo Credit: National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases (NIAID))

LOS ANGELES – A study published by researchers from the division of hematology and oncology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA at the end of June revealed that HIV has an “early and substantial” impact on aging in infected people, accelerating biological changes in the body associated with normal aging within just two to three years of infection.

“Our work demonstrates that even in the early months and years of living with HIV, the virus has already set into motion an accelerated aging process at the DNA level,” said lead author Elizabeth Crabb Breen, a professor emerita at UCLA’s Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology and of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “This emphasizes the critical importance of early HIV diagnosis and an awareness of aging-related problems, as well as the value of preventing HIV infection in the first place.”

According to the results of the study published in the Cell Press open source journal iScience, the findings suggest that new HIV infection may rapidly cut nearly five years off an individual’s life span relative to an uninfected person.

The study’s authors noted that despite a significant increase in life expectancy because of treatment regimes now available to patients, there is mounting evidence that living long-term with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and antiretroviral therapy, even when clinically well-controlled, is associated with an earlier than expected onset of chronic conditions such as heart and kidney disease, frailty, and neurocognitive difficulties.

The research team analyzed stored blood samples from 102 men collected six months or less before they became infected with HIV and again two to three years after infection. They compared these with matching samples from 102 non-infected men of the same age taken over the same time period.

The UCLA team said that this study is the first to match infected and non-infected people in this way. All the men were participants in the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study, an ongoing nationwide study initiated in 1984.

“Our access to rare, well-characterized samples allowed us to design this study in a way that leaves little doubt about the role of HIV in eliciting biological signatures of early aging,” said senior author Beth Jamieson, a professor in the division of hematology and oncology at the Geffen School. “Our long-term goal is to determine whether we can use any of these signatures to predict whether an individual is at increased risk for specific aging-related disease outcomes, thus exposing new targets for intervention therapeutics.”

The researchers noted some limitations to the study. It included only men, so results may not be applicable to women. In addition, the number of non-white participants was small, and the sample size was insufficient to take into consideration later effects of highly active antiretroviral treatment or to predict clinical outcomes.

There is still no consensus on what constitutes normal aging or how to define it, the researchers wrote.

The full study is available here: (Link)

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AIDS and HIV

U.S. announces more funding for HIV/AIDS fight in Latin America

Jill Biden made announcement on Saturday in Panama

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Former Panamanian first lady Lorena Castillo and UNAIDS in 2017 launched a campaign to fight discrimination against Panamanians with HIV/AIDS. Panama will receive $12.2 million in new PEPFAR funding to further combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Latin America. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

PANAMA CITY — First lady Jill Biden on Saturday announced the U.S. will provide an additional $80.9 million to the fight against HIV/AIDS in Latin America.

Biden during a visit to Casa Hogar el Buen Samaritano, a shelter for people with HIV/AIDS in Panama City, said the State Department will earmark an additional $80.9 million for President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief-funded work in Latin America. A Panamanian activist with whom the Washington Blade spoke said LGBTQ+ people were among those who met with the first lady during her visit.

Pope Francis visited the shelter in 2019.

“I’m glad we have the opportunity to talk about how the United States and Panama can work together to combat HIV,” said the first lady.

Michael LaRosa, the first lady’s spokesperson, noted Panama will receive $12.2 million of the $80.9 million in PEPFAR funding.

“This funding, pending Congressional notification, will support expanded HIV/AIDS services and treatment,” said LaRosa.

UNAIDS statistics indicate an estimated 31,000 Panamanians were living with HIV/AIDS in 2020. The first lady’s office notes the country in 2020 had the highest number of “newly notificated cases of HIV/AIDS” in Central America.

The first lady visited Panama as part of a trip that included stops in Ecuador and Costa Rica.

The Summit of the Americas will take place next month in Los Angeles. The U.S. Agency for International Development and PEPFAR in April announced they delivered more than 18 million doses of antiretroviral drugs for Ukrainians with HIV/AIDS.

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