D.C. Councilman Vincent Gray, Walk Grand Marshall Jim Obergefell, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Whitman-Walker Executive Director Don Blanchon and Bishop Allyson Abrams of Empowerment Liberation Cathedral hold the "We Can See the Finish Line" banner at the 2017 Walk & 5K to End HIV. (Photo by Edward Le Poulin)
D.C. Councilman Vincent Gray, Walk Grand Marshall Jim Obergefell, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Whitman-Walker Executive Director Don Blanchon and Bishop Allyson Abrams of Empowerment Liberation Cathedral hold the "We Can See the Finish Line" banner at the 2017 Walk & 5K to End HIV. (Photo by Edward Le Poulin)

Saturday will mark the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day with communities around the globe pulling out all the stops in efforts to raise money for research, offer testing for those unsure of their HIV status and take time out to honor the memory of those who have succumbed to AIDS-related illnesses.

In conjunction, Whitman-Walker Health (WWH) will host its 32nd annual Walk & 5K to End HIV! – an event rescheduled to Dec. 1 after inclement weather caused organizers to delay the walk/run originally planned for the fall. With two locations in Northwest (Whitman-Walker @1525) and Southeast (Max Robison Center), the center’s staff says fundraising and participation can help save lives and provide needed support to the 40-year old nonprofit’s signature fundraising event.

The goal: to work toward a future with zero new HIV infections and barrier-free access to treatment for people living with HIV. Today, more than 13,000 people live with HIV in the District — more than 25 percent of these individuals receive their care at Whitman-Walker.

Challenges Facing the Black Community

A long history of being exploited, abused and given erroneous information has caused many African Americans to be leery of medical care facilities, making the job of the staff at Whitman-Walker Health that much more difficult, says Justin Woods, a PrEP specialist at Whitman-Walker Health.

“When we look at the racial history of our country, we see that Black Americans and other communities of color have continually faced abuse by medical institutions, including with their participation in medical trials. Accordingly, a legitimate feeling of mistrust has formed for many communities of color when it comes to engaging in health care and medical trials,” Woods said.

“During ‘The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,’ Black farmers were abused by government-funded medical trials for decades before we heard reports of the unethical treatment, and lack thereof, against these individuals. This was less than 10 years before we would first learn of the disease later to be identified as HIV. Acknowledging the history of mistrust, and working to restore that trust, is a necessary first step to helping communities of color engage in their health care and respond to the newest available treatments.” he said.

Woods said the wall of mistrust must be pulled down in order to get more Blacks into routine HIV care.

“Increasing health literacy in communities that have previously had limited access to health care services, working through the very real mistrust of the medical community, and taking meaningful strides to make sure service providers reflect the communities they serve will go a long way in increasing uptake of PrEP and medical interventions among Black communities,” he said.

“Those at the highest risk for contracting HIV are Black men who have sex with men, Black heterosexual women and Black and Latina Transgender women. Traditional outreach efforts have proven difficult because HIV is still highly stigmatized in many communities and conversations about safer sex are still considered taboo,” said Riana Buford, community health coordinator, WWH.

“This past summer, we developed a mobile testing schedule for priority populations in Washington, D.C., that are at the highest risk for HIV—those communities were Wards 5, 7, and 8. The mobile van went into the community on Fridays during the summer and provided free HIV testing and condoms to more than 100 individuals. These areas are historically African-American neighborhoods and we wanted to go out into the community to provide as much education as possible in hopes of de-stigmatizing HIV and HIV testing,”

“What’s our goal?” asked Daniel Bruner, senior director of policy, WWH. “Since our 1973 founding, we have been a place of refuge for the LGBTQ community. With the Trump Administration, we find ourselves speaking up to stop the erasure of that community, especially the trans and non-binary communities – and speaking against issues such as religious-based discrimination as it could create barriers to culturally competent health care. We help LGBTQ people seek asylum in the U.S. and that has not become easier with bills limiting who’s allowed to migrate and who’s targeted for deportation. We specialize in HIV care. The movement to dismantle the Affordable Care Act could have terrible consequences for our patients and the fact that there is no longer a Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS means we do not have advocates at the highest level of government.”

SWERV Publisher Makes Observations

We interview Jamil A. Fletcher, publisher, SWERV Magazine, a D.C.-based magazine that recently marked its 10th year. As an African-American leader and often spokesman for the LGBTQ community of color, as well as a former employee for Whitman-Walker, he has a unique, informed perspective.

WI: Awareness of one’s status may seem like a no-brainer, but is it really? What factors and data would lead this year’s international observance to target knowing one’s status?

Fletcher: The last statistic that I saw indicated that approximately 1/3 of folks living with HIV were not aware of their status. Stigma, denial and a complicated health care system that provides barriers to primary care can lead to folks not being aware of their HIV status. It’s complicated.

WI: A recent lawsuit filed against Gilead Sciences asserts that while new and better meds are now on the market, the pharmaceutical giant has promoted an older, less effective and potentially more harmful medication that they sell which has been detrimental to minority populations. How can Blacks be better informed about new medications?

Fletcher: I am aware of this lawsuit filed by attorney Benjamin Crump against Gilead. I am not aware of the details but the idea that a pharmaceutical was behaving in a manner to optimize profits would not be surprising. That goes to the root of what is wrong about our health care system. Profits are often prioritized over health outcomes. Ultimately, I put blame on the government for its inability to regulate the pharmaceutical industry in a manner that would ensure appropriate and affordable access to medication. It is incumbent that those of us who know better continue to educate those within our community who are ignorant about the impact of HIV in Black spaces. That means our places of worship, our schools, our fraternities/sororities, barbershops/beauty salons all need to be places where we have discussions on this issue. All Black medical professionals should be educated on the status of the epidemic in our community and be prepared to inform their patients. We must all become informed, especially if you are an opinion leader in your social network.

WI: Who’s really most in danger of becoming HIV-positive?

Fletcher: Anyone having unprotected sex is at risk of HIV infection. Current outreach efforts are not effective. HIV is no longer viewed with the same sense of urgency. The medications have offered folks a false sense of security regarding the virus, causing folks to lower their cards about prevention efforts. I can’t believe folks are having intercourse without condoms these days, outside of attempting to have children. HIV is still preventable.

DC government remains on the forefront of effective services to address the HIV epidemic. Jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia have not done as well, but certain areas in MD are getting better. The U.S. government has not made HIV a priority; it’s been a failure regarding health care in general.

World AIDS Day Event for Youth:

Friday, Nov. 30 from 4:30 p.m.- 8 p.m. at Tropicalia, 2001 14th Street NW – In Observation of World AIDS Day, join RealTalk DC of Whitman-Walker Health for the 8th Annual Golden Ticket Party for Prevention! All tickets to this event are free and are distributed to youth after they get tested with Whitman-Walker. The theme of this FREE event is “Good Vibes Only” so come out and enjoy Live Performances, Free Food, Raffle Prizes, HIV Testing & Sexual Health Info and More! Soundscape by: Shiva – @SoundsbyShii | Hosted by: Crochet Kingpin – Dwayne Lawson-Brown. For more information, contact Dwayne Lawson-Brown at DLawson-Brown@whitman-walker.org or 202.207.2364.

D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Dominic Kevin McNeir is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of service for the Black Press (NNPA). Prior to moving East to assist his aging parents in their struggles with Alzheimer’s,...

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