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AIDS and HIV

Meth epidemic getting worse; researchers, community respond

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Ex-meth addict Joey Valladares shares testimony during Act Now Against Meth virtual roundtable on July 21, 2020

 It may have been painful for him to tell the truth, but Donald Trump finally acknowledged that the coronavirus pandemic will probably “get worse before it gets better.”

The news is not surprising to elected and public officials in Los Angeles County where new cases of the coronavirus now average more than 21,000 daily. Deaths have passed 4,000, though there is still no data on how many are LGBTQ.

Some public health officials are looking through the intersectional lens of HIV/AIDS, STDs, mental health and substance abuse treatment and prevention, however. And on July 21, Richard Zaldivar, founder and executive director of The Wall Las Memorias, a non-profit LGBTQ Latino-focused community health and wellness organization, brought a number of those top professionals together for the Act Now Against Meth virtual roundtable.

Richard Zaldivar, founder and executive director of The Wall Las Memorias

The important data-heavy discussion addressing HIV and the crystal meth crisis among queer, gay and bisexual men — men who have sex with men (MSM) —in LA County is on The Wall Las Memorias Facebook page.

Zaldivar noted that more than a decade ago, the Office of AIDS reported that “out of every five cases of AIDS in Los Angeles County, three of the five cases were attributed to crystal meth use.” A workforce was created, “but the workforce didn’t do anything.”

In response, The Wall Las Memorias helped create the Act Now Against Meth Coalition, which later brought a 10,000-signature petition to the Board of Supervisors. That yielded in $1.6 million in new funding for treatment and prevention.

But meth became lethal with the introduction of fentanyl. Last year, meth caused more than 1,000 sudden deaths in LA County. Between 2008 and 2017, emergency hospital admissions for meth rose by 604% in California.

Meth made headlines after the 2017 accidental overdose of Black escort Gemmel Moore and Timothy Dean in  2019 in white gay politico Ed Buck’s West Hollywood apartment.

LA County Public Health was poised to launch a new MethFreeLACounty.org campaign last March when COVID hit. The roundtable was intended to jumpstart a grassroots community-based response.

Cheryl Barrit, Executive Director of the LA County HIV Commission

Cheryl Barrit, Executive Director of the LA County HIV Commission, noted the disproportionate impact on Brown and black communities,” especially with the complicated intersections of Meth, HIV and COVID-19.

“We need to take charge of creating our own narrative moving forward on how to respond to this crisis,” she said.

Mario Perez, Director of the Division of HIV and STD Programs, immediately noted that “the gas pedal was sort of let go a little bit” on the response to meth. The community much reenergize around “the ongoing and quite frankly, worsening meth epidemic.”

In fact, he said, LA County is experiencing “a few epidemics. One is the HIV epidemic, the meth epidemic, and more and more, there’s a syphilis epidemic,” with the intersection of HIV and syphilis exacerbated by meth.

Added to that — a report in April showed that HIV positive meth users exposed to COVID “will have far worse COVID- related health outcomes,” Perez said. He presented data indicating that “those 2008 numbers that caused such an alarm are, in fact, worse,” concluding that “the impact of this drug is quite profound.”

Graphic from presentation by Dr. Steve Shoptaw, Director of UCLA’s Center for HIV Identification, Prevention and Treatment Services (CHIPTS)

Also participating in the roundtable were Anders Corey, health deputy for Board of Supervisors President Kathryn Barger, who remember that 10,000-signature petition; Dr. Gary Tsai, SAPC Interim Director and Medical Director, who talked about counterfeit methamphetamine, the increase in hospitalizations and deaths; longtime addiction researchers Dr. Steve Shoptaw, Director of UCLA’s Center for HIV Identification, Prevention and Treatment Services (CHIPTS) and Cathy J. Reback, Friends Research Institution/UCLA, who talked about harm reduction, evidence-based biomedical interventions and the importance of meth users to stop smoking.

Graphic from presentation by Dr. Gary Tsai, SAPC Interim Director and Medical Director

The roundtable also featured powerful testimonies from Eric Dixon, who talked about meth and homelessness, and a young drag queen/community organizer named Joey Valladares, an example of an LGBTQ person who was lost to meth and found sobriety.

Joey never expected to touch meth after rough family experiences. “I knew that it was something that I could never touch because of it. I didn’t like who my brother became,” Joey shared. “I saw how it tears people apart.”

Then Joey met a random stranger at age 20. “He pulled out a meth pipe and began to smoke next to me and offered me a hit. At that point I had tried math twice at parties by accident. I didn’t like how it made me feel, so I was like, I don’t understand the hype behind this. I don’t know why people do it,” Joey said. But “I accepted and I took a hit of his pipe. And in that second and me doing it, it changed me for the rest of my life. It became an immediate problem. It was something that I thought about from that moment on.”

Joey found free meth meeting people through Grindr. “I lost sight of all my dreams and everything that I wanted in my life. It all became clouded in meth,” Joey said, spurning friends and family, drastically losing weight, getting meth skin and mouth. “I couldn’t stop.”

Lost, paranoid, wandering downtown barefoot, turned away for having that meth look, Joey had an epiphany.

Drag queen/community organizer Joey Valladares

“I saw a really ugly side of humanity that day. And from that moment, I knew that if I kept smoking and if I kept getting high, I was going to really lose who I was as a person,” Joey said.

Family and friendly connections on Facebook enabled Joey to get help and build a support system.

Now, two years and eight months sober, Joey said: “Luckily, I’m really happy, but there are still so many people that aren’t — people that are still struggling. These conversations are so important and are really needed.”

For more on ACT NOW AGAINST METH, go to The Wall Las Memorias. Click here for the presentation by Dr. Steve Shoptaw and click here for the presentation by Dr. Gary Tsai. 

 

 

 

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AIDS and HIV

Surviving Voices, “Substance Users, the Recovery Community & AIDS

The Surviving Voices storytelling initiative is being recognized for its powerful work in helping tell the story of AIDS

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Surviving Voices is a program of the National AIDS Memorial (Photo Credit: NAM)

SAN FRANCISCO – The National AIDS Memorial Surviving Voices storytelling initiative is being recognized for its powerful work in helping tell the story of AIDS through the voices of survivors of the pandemic, now in its 40th year.

More than 700,000 U.S. lives have been lost since the first cases of AIDS were first reported in 1981. Today, more than 1.2 million people are living with HIV, with a disproportionate impact in communities of color and in southern U.S. states.

The Memorial has officially released its most recent mini-documentary, “Substance Users, the Recovery Community & AIDS” following exclusive screenings at two LGBTQ+ film festivals – Frameline45 and SF Queer Film Fest 2021.  The mini-documentary, along with deep dive personal interview segments with survivors and advocates, can be viewed on the Memorial’s website at www.aidsmemorial.org.

“The National AIDS Memorial is honored to have our Surviving Voices mini-documentary featured at these influential film festivals,” said Chief Executive John Cunningham. “It speaks to the important work our organization is doing to share these powerful personal stories of hope, resilience and the journey of survivors around the issue of HIV/AIDS and addiction in an authentic and powerful way.”

“Substance Users, the Recovery Community & AIDS” focuses the camera on the unique challenges of HIV/AIDS faced by this community. Through personal stories of survival, the film powerfully captures the journey of AIDS advocates and those of individual survivors living with HIV/AIDS who have struggled simultaneously with the disease of addiction, in raw, honest and forthright conversations.  It depicts their individual strength, power, hope and resilience, the importance of community, spirit, self-respect, and the will to live with dignity and pride.  It also shows their vulnerabilities, the shame, denial, stigma, and hopelessness they have experienced. 

As Queer Chaplain Bonnie Violet Quintana shares, “I can be as I am. Me getting HIV. Me being in recovery – all of that is a big part of Me.” 

The National AIDS Memorial’s Surviving Voices mini-documentaries are produced and directed by Jörg Fockele and funded through a grant by Chevron, a long-standing partner of the National AIDS Memorial. Community partners include the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, The Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network, Stonewall Project and the Castro Country Club.

“We believe in the power of storytelling and the lessons it can teach current and future generations,” said Huma Abbasi, General Manager, Health & Medical at Chevron. “Our long-time support for Surviving Voices is part of our commitment to sharing the very human experiences that have shaped 40 years of the AIDS epidemic. At Chevron, our success is tied to the progress and prosperity of the communities where we operate. In line with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, we believe that healthy, educated communities are critical to that success.”

Surviving Voices is a program of the National AIDS Memorial created to ensure the myriad stories and lessons of the epidemic are captured, curated, and retained for current and future generations.  “Substance Users, the Recovery Community & AIDS” is the sixth film produced in this multi-year oral history initiative, which also includes “The Transgender Community & AIDS,” “The A&PI Community & AIDS,” “Women & AIDS,” “The National Hemophilia Community & AIDS,” and “The San Francisco Leather Community & AIDS.”

“I hope that these mini-documentaries will be as inspiring for current and future generations confronting their own challenges as they were for us when we filmed them,” said Fockele.

Learn more about the Surviving Voices, the National AIDS Memorial, its mission, programs and how to provide support at www.aidsmemorial.org.

Surviving Voices Mini-Documentary: Substance Users, Recovery Community and AIDS:

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AIDS and HIV

Governor Newsom signs HIV & Aging Act authored by Sen. John Laird

Sponsors of SB 258 include Equality California, AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) Health, Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE)

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Photo Credit: Office of the Governor of California

SACRAMENTO – On Friday Governor Gavin Newsom announced the signing of Senate Bill 258, the HIV & Aging Act, authored by Senator John Laird (D – Santa Cruz). Senate Bill 258 will ensure HIV+ seniors are included in the definition of “greatest social need”.

“When I was the Santa Cruz AIDS Agency Director in the 1980’s, it was our dream to have people living with HIV live into old age,” said Senator Laird. “To be very clear, this group was not supposed to age. Governor Newsom signing the HIV & Aging Act is a historic moment for the LGBTQ community, and all those who have been affected by the HIV crisis.”

With the recent advancements in HIV treatment, people with HIV can keep the virus suppressed and live long and healthy lives. For this reason, the number of HIV positive older people is increasing. According to a 2018 California HIV Surveillance Report published by the California Department of Public Health, over half of the people living with the virus in California are now aged 50 years or older. This same report shows that 15 percent of newly diagnosed patients were age 50 and older in that same year.

Sponsors of SB 258 include Equality California, AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) Health, Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), and the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

Sen. John Laird speaking at PRIDE with the LGBTQ Legislative Caucus June 2021 (Blade File Photo)

Equality California Legislative Director Tami A. Martin notes, “After surviving the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic, many Californians living with HIV are now over the age of 50, but in dire need of support. Thanks to Governor Newsom, Senator Laird and HIV advocates, the Golden State will now make sure that our elders living with HIV have access to food assistance, job training, transportation or any other vital services. We applaud Governor Gavin Newsom for signing the HIV & Aging Act into law, making California just the second state to ensure older Californians living with HIV don’t just continue to survive, but thrive.”

“Thanks to effective treatments, people with HIV are living longer than we could have ever imagined just a few decades ago and now a majority of people with HIV in California are over 50 years old. Unfortunately, our current health and social service systems are not yet prepared to address the unique needs of this population,” APLA Health Chief Executive Officer Craig E. Thompson said adding; “Many older people with HIV are long term survivors of the AIDS epidemic. They have lost countless loved ones and entire networks of social support. They also continue to face discrimination and alarming levels of stigma. We thank Senator Laird for his leadership on this historic bill to ensure that people aging with HIV have the resources and support they need to thrive and age with dignity.”

“We must ensure that LGBTQ seniors have the affirming care and support so they can age in peace with dignity,” stated Laird. “It’s incumbent upon us to not force individuals back into the closet for them to access adequate care. Once again, I’d like to applaud the Governor for his continued support of the LBGTQ community and to my colleagues for making this a priority bill.”

The HIV & Aging Act received unanimous bipartisan support through both chambers of the Legislature and is a legislative priority for the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus.

Senate Bill 258 will go into effect January 1, 2022.

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AIDS and HIV

HIV & Aging Act sails through legislature; awaits Newsom’s signature

“When I was Santa Cruz AIDS Agency Director, it was our dream to have people living with HIV age into the senior category.”

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California State Senator John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) (Photo courtesy of the Senate of State of California)

SACRAMENTO —  The California Assembly passed SB 258, the HIV and Aging Act, by Senator John Laird (D-Santa Cruz), Thursday sending the bill to Governor Newsom for signature. The bill advanced from the Assembly consent calendar and received no “no” votes in either chamber.

Pending Governor Newsom’s final approval, California will become only the second state — after Illinois in 2019 — to designate older adults living with HIV as a population of “greatest social need.”

“When I was Santa Cruz AIDS Agency Director, it was our dream to have people living with HIV age into the senior category,” said Senator Laird. “To be very clear, this group was not supposed to grow old. While the drug cocktail transformed the fight against HIV, and there are more HIV positive seniors than ever before, older people living with HIV face a number of behavioral health challenges in addition to physical illnesses. By easing the burden of connecting this vulnerable population to supportive aging services and programs, this bill provides another life line to assist this uniquely disadvantaged group.

“I would like to express my utmost thanks to the sponsors of SB 258 for their steadfast partnership and the large coalition of supporters who highlighted the critical need for historic recognition and support of those living with HIV.”

With recent advancements in HIV treatment, people with HIV who take antiretroviral therapy can keep the virus suppressed and live long and healthy lives. For this reason, the number of older people living with HIV is increasing and over half of people living with HIV in California are now aged 50 years or older. However, older people with HIV continue to face unique challenges and barriers in health and well-being. A 2020 report by SAGE’s HIV and Aging Policy Action Coalition (HAPAC) identified that older people with HIV are more likely than their HIV-negative counterparts to have multiple comorbidities, including certain cancers, cardiovascular disease, fractures, and hepatitis C. Older people with HIV also face a number of behavioral health challenges, including rates of depression up to five times greater than their HIV-negative peers and greater levels of stigma, social isolation and loneliness.

“As a person living with HIV since 1983, I thank the Assembly for passing SB 258 – the HIV & Aging Act – recognizing older adults with HIV face unique and profound challenges as a population of ‘greatest social need.’” said Tez Anderson, Executive Director of Let’s Kick ASS-AIDS Survivor Syndrome. “For too long, survivors of the AIDS pandemic have been overlooked and forgotten. None of us imagined aging, but over half of all Californians living with HIV are aging and urgently in need of social services and programs which address our physical and mental health. I urge Governor Newsom to sign the bill and give us hope for a better quality of life.”

The HIV & Aging Act updates the Welfare and Institutions Code to ensure older people living with HIV — who are likely to turn to government and community-based services due to multiple comorbidities, behavioral and mental health issues and limited social support — have access to the programs and services administered through the California Department of Aging. The legislation is co-authored by Senators Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton), Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Assemblymembers Sabrina Cervantes (D-Corona), Alex Lee (D-San Jose), Evan Low (D-Campbell) and Chris Ward (D-San Diego) and co-sponsored by APLA Health, Equality California, the Los Angeles LGBT Center and SAGE.

“Thanks to effective treatments, people with HIV are living longer than we could have ever imagined just a few decades ago,” said APLA Health Chief Executive Officer Craig E. Thompson. “Unfortunately, our current health and social service systems are ill-equipped to address the unique needs of this population. Many older people with HIV are long term survivors of the AIDS epidemic. They have lost countless loved ones and entire networks of social support. They experience significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety and other comorbidities. They also continue to face discrimination and alarming levels of stigma. APLA Health urges Governor Newsom to sign SB 258 into law to ensure that California’s aging network is prepared to support the state’s rapidly growing population of people aging with HIV.”

“As the number of older people living with HIV continues to increase, so should our state’s commitment to support this resilient population,” said Equality California Legislative Director Tami A. Martin. “We are thrilled that SB 258 received overwhelming, bipartisan support in the California legislature, and we look forward to pro-equality champion Governor Newsom signing this timely bill into law. Older Californians living with HIV deserve to have the resources and support they need to thrive with dignity.”

“SAGE applauds California State Senator John Laird and his colleagues for taking action in support of LGBT elders and people living with HIV,” said SAGE Director of Advocacy Aaron Tax. “This legislation would update the Older Americans Act in California, which funds critical programs like Meals-on-Wheels, to designate older people living with HIV as a target population. As older people living with HIV continue to face challenges in getting the aging services and supports that they need, it’s time for the law to catch up with the aging of the epidemic. Everyone should have access to the aging services and supports that they need, regardless of their identity or HIV status. This legislation will bring us closer to that reality.”

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