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Dr. Nina Vasan: mental health challenges facing LGBTQ+ youth

Dr. Nina Vasan, clinical assistant professor at Stanford University School of Medicine offers advice on mental health resources

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Dr. Nina Vasan, clinical assistant professor at Stanford University School of Medicine/Facebook

NEW YORK – Over the past few years, right-wing state legislatures and elected public education officials have turned schools across the U.S. into political battlegrounds, ushering in a new wave of policies designed to restrict the rights of LGBTQ+ students.

Dr. Nina Vasan, clinical assistant professor at Stanford University School of Medicine and chief medical officer at Real, talked with The Los Angeles Blade about how LGBTQ+ students and their families can protect their mental health in hostile educational environments, including by seeking help from qualified therapists. 

“All kids deserve to not be the target of political issues,” she said, and the politicization of LGBTQ+ identities can create environments in which young people will often experience “more open hostility and discrimination.” 

LGBTQ+ students need adult allies in their schools to “proactively create safe spaces,” Dr. Vasan said. Examples may include offering school-based clubs and support groups or hanging “safe space” signs in classrooms and integrating LGBTQ+ people and themes into curricula, she said.

However, some school officials, such as members of the board of Minnesota’s Becker Public School district, have enacted or are considering measures to expressly forbid some or all of these activities. So have state legislatures, with Florida’s widely derided “Don’t Say Gay” bill a notable example. 

Students in many cases have responded in kind by voicing their opposition to and mobilizing resistance against such policies and practices. For instance, in Florida alone, among other youth-led initiatives The Blade has covered a campaign to unseat radical right-wing school board officials in Flagler County and demonstrations against the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, after it was signed into law by Gov. DeSantis in March.

For some students, Dr. Vasan said political organizing “can be healthy and helpful and give a strong sense of purpose and meaning,” but she cautioned young people should protect themselves by, for example: (1) finding a trusted adult who can help, including by providing advice on how best to navigate the school or school board’s political environment; (2) prioritizing one’s physical and psychological health by keeping an eye out for safety concerns or threats of retribution – weighing the pros and cons of each action accordingly; and (3) connecting with LGBTQ+ nonprofit and advocacy organizations whose considerable experience and resources can make political organizing efforts more effective and potentially less risky. 

Dr. Vasan said that regardless of whether they choose to lead walkouts and launch petitions, it is critical for young people, particularly those who identify as LGBTQ+, to have ready access to mental health resources. “Proactive and preventive mental health care is so important,” and it is crucial for youth “to get professional help if they are struggling with their mental health.” 

Thankfully, Dr. Vasan has a variety of recommendations on that front. 

Advice for LGBTQ+ youth in search of mental health related resources and services 

A smart first step for students who may be interested in seeking help from a therapist is to solicit recommendations for providers from their existing clinicians, such as a primary care physician or pediatrician, Dr. Vasan said. 

Alternatively, “The Trevor Project is an incredible organization that has a collection of supportive resources, including therapists, counselors, peer community, and educational resources such as articles and FAQs,” Dr. Vasan said, adding that Yelp and Psychology Today are also excellent – the latter allowing users to search for mental health professionals who accept their insurance coverage and specialize in caring for LGBTQ+ patients. 

Of course, financial considerations are key. Ideally with help from parents or a trusted adult, Dr. Vasan said potential patients should evaluate each potential provider’s cost per session, insurance coverage, and whether and how their insurance plan could be used to pay for an out-of-network provider. 

“If one on one therapy is cost prohibitive, look at group therapy and other community resources that might be offered by places like your school, community centers, local nonprofit organizations, and LGBTQ+ support groups,” Dr. Vasan said. 

It pays to do some research online and consult with existing providers if possible to explore all available options. These days, telehealth visits are widely available in lieu of in-person visits, though Dr. Vasan cautioned that providers must nevertheless be licensed in the state where the patient resides. Some clinics offer low-cost therapy or charge patients on a sliding scale according to what they can afford, she added. 

One option that affords some flexibility is Real. Dr. Vasan described the service as “unique and effective, providing members with high quality care at a lower price point (for just $13 a month!)” She said the platform operates “outside the traditional 1:1 therapy model,” with a
“monthly membership that provides a suite of on-demand, digital tools for some of the most commonly felt inner-struggles.”

Dr. Vasan recommends setting up initial sessions with a few clinicians – giving each some background information beforehand, and then evaluating which is the best fit. 

“Think ahead of time what your goals are in therapy and after you meet with them, review this and reflect on who you felt comfortable with, who seemed to provide the space that makes you feel safe, who gave good insights into their assessment and plan for your diagnosis and/or treatment,” she said.

Fentanyl Crisis

Federal health officials hold roundtable on opioid overdose crisis

“Deaths caused by opioids like illicit fentanyl are preventable with naloxone,” said White House advisor Dr. Rahul Gupta

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HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, Rahul Gupta, Tammy Baldwin, Robert Calif and Miriam Delphin Rittmon at Whitman-Walker Health (Washington Blade by Lou Chibbaro Jr)

WASHINGTON – U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and four other high level federal health officials held a roundtable community meeting followed by a press conference at D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Health headquarters on Friday to discuss what they said were “groundbreaking” efforts to address and end the nation’s epidemic of deaths from the overdose of opioid drugs.

A statement released by HHS says Becerra and the other officials, including Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, reached out to Whitman-Walker, which, among other things, operates one of the D.C. metro area’s preeminent substance abuse treatment programs, to commemorate the one-year anniversary HHS’s Overdoes Prevention Strategy program.

“Now, one year after the release of this strategy, our nation is in a much stronger position to treat addiction and save lives,” Becerra said. “We didn’t get here by accident. Thanks to decades of work by advocates, coupled with an unparalleled people-first strategy and unprecedented investment by the Biden-Harris administration, we have made a great deal of progress,” he said.

The officials, including Gupta, pointed out that the Overdose Prevention Strategy over the past year and an updated effort launched this month have focused on greatly expanding availability of the drug overdose antidote medication naloxone.

“Deaths caused by opioids like illicit fentanyl are preventable with naloxone, and today’s announcement means more life-saving naloxone will be in communities across the country,” Gupta said. “The latest data continue to show a hopeful trend of a decreases in overdose deaths, so we must remain focused on fully implementing President Biden’s National Drug Control Strategy that will save tens of thousands of lives by expanding care for substance use disorder, making naloxone more accessible, and dismantling drug trafficking operations,” he said. 

In addition to Gupta from the White House, Becerra was joined at the community meeting and press conference by Dr. Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, assistant secretary for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which is an arm of HHS; Dr. Debra Houry, acting principal deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Robert Califf, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

Also participating in the roundtable session and press conference was U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the nation’s first out lesbian member of the Senate. 

Becerra said he invited Baldwin to participant in the day’s events, among other things, because of her record of advocacy and support for funding of federal substance abuse and overdose prevention programs. 

“One area I’ve championed in Congress is increasing access to overdose reversal medication like naloxone,” Baldwin said. “We know that when you increase access to this safe and effective treatment that you save lives,” she said. “And I’m thrilled to see the Biden administration and especially the Food and Drug Administration taking steps to increase access to naloxone.”

Califf told the gathering one of the FDA’s recently launched efforts is to work with drug manufacturers to arrange for naloxone to become an over-the-counter drug that would further expand its availability. 

The roundtable discussion session, which included close to 50 participants, including Becerra and the other federal officials, was closed to the press, according to an HHS spokesperson, because among those participating were Whitman-Walker clients and others who receive services and support for what the officials called substance use disorder.

During the press conference that followed, Becerra spoke of how some of those participating in the roundtable discussion were part of Whitman-Walker’s success stories in helping people overcome substance use problems 

“We’re here because a year ago we decided to go in a different direction at the federal level,” he said at the press conference. “We decided that we’re not moving fast enough, we’re not moving close enough to where we need to be to try to help communities and those folks at Whitman-Walker who are trying to not just get folks into treatment but to save lives,” Becerra said. 

“And that was the great thing about the round table that we just had,” he said. “We heard about how people thrive,” he said, adding, “And one of the clients, Deborah, spoke about how she’s on the verge of getting her degree from college … That’s what we want to see … I want to thank the folks at Whitman-Walker for letting us come today to see how people can thrive and be part of that success.”

Whitman-Walker Health CEO Naseema Shafi told the Washington Blade after the press conference that Whitman-Walker has a long history of partnering with federal government agencies in addressing health issues, including Whitman-Walker’s role as a healthcare facility welcoming the LGBTQ community. 

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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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AIDS and HIV

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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AIDS and HIV

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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AIDS and HIV

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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Fentanyl Crisis

Fentanyl Crisis: Deaths in Los Angeles County up 1,280%

Never take a pill from a friend. Never take a pill bought on social media. Just one pill is dangerous and one pill can kill

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Just two milligrams of fentanyl, the small amount that fits on the tip of a pencil or Abe Lincoln's nose on a penny, is considered a potentially deadly dose. (Photo Credit: USDEA)

LOS ANGELES – In a somber press conference Tuesday, officials representing Los Angeles County law enforcement and public health agencies announced that the number of fentanyl-related deaths had leaped upwards by 1,280%, from 109 in 2016 to 1,504 in 2021.

“Tragically, in L.A. County, about four people die each day from a fentanyl overdose and this devastating loss touches families all across the county,” Dr. Barbara Ferrer, the LA County Public Health Director told reporters.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Laboratory has found that, of the fentanyl-laced fake prescription pills analyzed in 2022, six out of ten now contain a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl. This is an increase from DEA’s previous announcement in 2021 that four out of ten fentanyl-laced fake prescription pills were found to contain a potentially lethal dose.

“More than half of the fentanyl-laced fake prescription pills being trafficked in communities across the country now contain a potentially deadly dose of fentanyl. This marks a dramatic increase – from four out of ten to six out of ten – in the number of pills that can kill,” said Administrator Anne Milgram. “These pills are being mass-produced by the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel in Mexico. Never take a pill that wasn’t prescribed directly to you. Never take a pill from a friend. Never take a pill bought on social media. Just one pill is dangerous and one pill can kill.”

“The proliferation into prescription drug lookalikes show that four out of 10 pills that are recovered today by the Los Angeles Police Department, and across this country, contain a deadly and fatal amount of fentanyl,” LAPD Chief Michel Moore said.

The DEA notes that those pills are largely made by two Mexican drug cartels, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco (CJNG) Cartel, to look identical to real prescription medications, including OxyContin®, Percocet®, and Xanax®, and they are often deadly. The two cartels using chemicals largely sourced from China, are primarily responsible for the vast majority of the fentanyl that is being trafficked in communities across the United States.

In the press conference L.A. County officials noted that a working group made up of law enforcement, health officials, the district attorney’s office, school leaders, community advocates and parents has been created. 

“Each of us comes from a different place, the tools that we bring to the table are different, but when combine all of our tools together, we believe that we will be able to have the greatest impact for the wellbeing of our community,” L.A. County District Attorney George Gascón said.

According to the Gascón, the plan is to provide more education about the risks, prevention through treatment and enforcement by going after the suppliers.  

“So, we’re here to commit ourselves to our continued efforts to combat the number one drug problem in America today,” Chief Moore added.

Fentanyl remains the deadliest drug threat facing the U.S. as it is a highly addictive synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.  Just two milligrams of fentanyl, the small amount that fits on the tip of a pencil, is considered a potentially deadly dose.

According to the CDC, 107,622 Americans died of drug poisoning in 2021, with 66 percent of those deaths involving synthetic opioids like fentanyl. 

For more information on the dangers of fentanyl, please visit Fentanyl Awareness (dea.gov).

Read the LA County Report:

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AIDS and HIV

FDA loosens restrictions on blood donation by gay & bisexual men

The policy change marks only the third time in which the FDA has loosened restrictions on blood donation by men who have sex with men

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FDA headquarters building Silver Spring, Maryland (Photo Credit: U.S. Government/GSA)

SILVER SPRING, Md. – The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reportedly drafting guidelines to ease restrictions on blood donation by gay and bisexual men by removing the required one-year period of sexual abstinence for those in exclusively monogamous relationships.

New rules can be expected in coming months as the agency is now finalizing an individualized risk assessment questionnaire to determine eligibility, sources briefed on the matter told The Wall Street Journal.

According to an FDA spokesperson, potential donors who have had anal intercourse with a new sexual partner within the past three months would likely be asked to wait an additional three months before donating.

The FDA issued a blanket ban on blood donation from all men who have sex with men amid the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Since then, the agency has narrowed these restrictions only twice.

Gay and bisexual men who abstained from sex for a year or longer were permitted to donate blood with a 2015 policy change. Then, faced with severe blood shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA shortened the required abstinence period to three months.

GLAAD responded to Wednesday’s news of the FDA’s planned issuance of new guidelines with a statement that praised the move – while stressing that any restriction on blood and plasma donation by gay and bisexual men “is rooted in stigma, not science.”

“While today’s reports of an overdue move from the FDA is an important step, our community and leading medical experts will not stop advocating for the FDA to lift all restrictions against qualified LGBTQ blood donor candidates,” said GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis.

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