Health Lead Story West Edition

World AIDS Day brings new vitality to testing, treatment

LOS ANGELES — Despite the fact that “prevention efforts have helped to maintain stability in the annual number of new HIV infections,” officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say HIV is a crisis in the African-American community.

World AIDS Day commemorations Dec. 1 helped draw attention to the plight of 16,891 blacks diagnosed and living with HIV in Los Angeles County.

AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) Health and Wellness Prevention team members raised awareness by providing free 60-second finger-prick HIV test results at its Gleicher/Chen Health Center on South La Brea Avenue.

Dontá Morrison, coordinator of APLA’s youth programs, said 26 clients, mostly women, were tested. All were HIV negative — and were relieved by their test results — but one woman was unsure about her partner, so her test was a check of his fidelity since she didn’t want to bring him in for a test.”

“Many African Americans and Latinos test late and end up with both HIV and AIDS diagnoses within six months,” said Vallerie Wagner, chief operating officer of APLA’s Health and Wellness Project.

“We know one key way to stave off getting an AIDS diagnosis once you become HIV positive is to get tested, know your status, and get treatment,” she added. “In Latino and African-American communities, individuals are not getting tested. They are positive, but don’t know they are infected.”

The APLA clinic serves all of South L.A., with specialties in the health needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. At the Dec. 1 outreach event, staff distributed pamphlets on the latest in prevention, primary medical care, dental, counseling services and innovations in treating HIV/AIDS.

“People who aren’t HIV positive can take a pill daily for protection before they get exposed to HIV,” Wagner said.  ‘PrEP’— pre-exposure prophylaxis — keeps the virus from finding a home in your body. It is very effective, but it doesn’t protect from other sexually transmitted diseases.”

About 60,000 residents countywide live with HIV, according to the county’s year-end data for 2013.

African Americans are the most severely burdened with HIV/AIDS of any racial or ethnic group. They comprise nine percent of the county’s general population, but represent nearly a quarter of the newly diagnosed cases in 2011.

Blacks also are diagnosed at a higher annual rate than whites or Latinos: 50 per 100,000, more than triple the rate of whites and nearly triple that of Latinos.

African American gay and bisexual men and youth are also at greater risk. Among women, black women have the highest rate of HIV/AIDS way out of proportion to their numbers, in part because they have sex with men who have had sex with men. Seniors 55 to 60 years of age and older are also becoming more affected.

“Erectile dysfunction drugs help men to have sex, but they may be having sex with other men on the ‘down low,’ but they are not gay and they do not identify as homosexual,” said Dr. Wilbert Jordan, director of Charles Drew University’s Oasis Clinic.

“From the medical perspective, we have good treatments, but we need to be discussing the crisis all the time, at barber shops, beauty parlors and churches, not just on World AIDS Day. Someone affected with HIV/AIDS is not going to be cured by going to some quack selling olive oil for $3,000. No one is curing AIDS. There is no cure,” Jordan added.

Morrison said he went through serious depression, sadness, loneliness and isolation after learning of his HIV status 16 years ago.

“All I knew of HIV was death,” he said. “I felt my life was over.

“I had no idea what to expect or what was about to happen to my body, or where to go or whom to talk. The knowledge of HIV wasn’t present in the black community, it was primarily known as a white gay male’s disease.

“The black community didn’t talk about it and I am a church kid and when it comes to sex and sexuality, it is totally different,” he added.

The Rev. Kelvin Sauls, senior pastor at Holman United Methodist Church, talked about the “schizophrenic relationship black folks continue to have with reproductive health issues.”

“We need to continue to break down the ‘disease of stigmatization,’ and engage in healthy strategies around reproductive health and help people know their status,” he said.

Robert Bolden, director of the Crenshaw Christian Center HIV/AIDS ministry, agreed. “Without knowledge, people tend to think HIV/AIDS is taboo. Our biggest obstacles are stigma — and discrimination.”

Unlike the early decades of the epidemic when many black churches shunned HIV/AIDS issues, Holman, the Crenshaw Christian Center, Bam Crawford Ministries, West Angeles Church of God in Christ, First AME, Zion Hill, Second Baptist, Unity Fellowship, St. Bridget Catholic Church and others have confronted the crisis head-on with decades of experience combined.

Holman Organized for People Empowerment (HOPE) Director Claudia Spears said more people are aware of HIV/AIDS and that one can live with it.

“People don’t have to die, especially if they get tested, educated about the disease, and stay in treatment,” she said.

HOPE promotes HIV/AIDS awareness through participation in the National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day and the National Week of Prayer for Healing of AIDS. It works with the Minority AIDS Project; the Black AIDS Institute; In the Meantime; the Sierra Project; Watts Healthcare, Inc.; and the Oasis Clinic. “We take lunch to the clients,” Spears said.

Holman also sponsors Strength for the Journey, an annual weeklong retreat in Malibu or in the Angeles National Forest for more than 100 HIV-positive individuals. “Holman sponsors those who cannot afford to attend, and in collaboration with ‘Strength,’ now provides a monthly gathering,” Spears said.

The Crenshaw Christian Center provides HIV/AIDS testing, door-to-door outreach and speakers.

“We celebrate World AIDS Day, and Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day,” Bolden said. “We partner on initiatives with Oasis Clinic and Magic Johnson. The situation is getting better because people are getting more knowledge and their longevity and quality of life are improving.”