Most Americans share a propensity toward acknowledging significant anniversaries – milestones in their lives or in the lives of the communities in which they reside.
But there remain those “anniversaries” that, while we can neither ignore or forget them, bear the distinction of evoking emotions more in tune with lamentation rather than celebration.
The 40th anniversary of HIV/AIDS serves as an example.
In a June 3 editorial published in The Washington Informer, we shared the following observation:
It was 40 years ago when the New York Times wrote: “Doctors in New York and California have diagnosed among homosexual men 41 cases of a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer. Eight of the victims died less than 24 months after the diagnosis was made.” That “cancer” was later named HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and the virus that has been responsible for the deaths of 700,000 people in the U.S. and approximately 13,000 people per year. As of 2018, the CDC reported that about 1.2 million people are living in the U.S. with HIV and about 14 percent of them (1-in-7) don’t know it and need testing.
Here’s where local non-profits including D.C.’s Whitman-Walker enter the picture as an essential leader and participant in the ongoing fight against HIV/AIDS.
In the early days of the virus, it quickly became referred to as the “gay disease” – an inaccurate and derogatory description which it received because at its onset, most of the patients who succumbed to HIV/AIDS identified themselves as “gay.”
Of course, since then, we have learned that like any other virus, including today’s still deadly COVID-19, sexual orientation, gender, race, age or other demographic distinctions have little impact on whether one will become infected.
The leaders and staff at Whitman-Walker have recognized this truth since the organization’s founding 43 years ago. Since its establishment as a non-profit in 1978, Whitman-Walker has remained committed to maintaining “dignity, respect and love” for all its patients.
HIV/AIDS – once an inevitable death sentence – no longer yields such a tragic ending, given the medical advancements we’ve seen over the past 40 years. And with the recent observance of HIV Long-Term Survivors Awareness Day, we can celebrate the face that more people are living long, productive lives despite being HIV-positive.
In an interview with The Washington Informer, we spoke with Whitman-Walker’s team about the services they provide and their views on the changes our nation has witnessed in changing minds about the stigma long-associated with HIV/AIDS.
Washington Informer: How do you compare the state of health in the U.S. 40 years ago since the CDC identified HIV/AIDS to today, particularly when we compare discrepancies within race, gender and economic demographics?
Whitman-Walker: Forty years ago, HIV did not have a name and there was no approved test for HIV. Infections rates were climbing rapidly and the sitting U.S. president would not publicly discuss the growing death rates. The disease was greatly impacting gay men but quickly spread to sexually active communities regardless of sexual orientation, to injection drug users, to people receiving blood transfusions and more. Today, new HIV infection rates are increasing for Black men who have sex with men, transgender women of color, Black heterosexual women and young people. HIV prevention tools like PrEP are more widely adopted by white gay and bisexual men but can be lifesaving for Black and brown communities. PrEP and PEP are great HIV prevention tools for all genders and our teams are working to ensure communities in the DMV can easily access them through our PrEP and PEP hotlines.” (Ramatoulaye Keita, Senior Manager of Community Health at Whitman-Walker Health).
WI: In the early days of the virus, there was great fear and stigma. Has that changed?
WW: Fear and stigma are still very present for HIV today. HIV is not a death sentence but many people remember the stories and images of the early days of the epidemic and it affects how they perceive HIV, or an HIV diagnosis today. We have also come a long way toward embracing all kinds of loving relationships in our communities, which has helped us with stigma. We have so many more HIV prevention tools like treatment as prevention, PrEP and PEP. People are more comfortable getting routine testing for HIV whether via a testing location or through a scheduled medical appointment with your provider.” (Naseema Shafi, CEO at Whitman-Walker Health).
WI: With the new meds, many young people don’t think much HIV. Is this more apropos for millennials?
WW: Living through a pandemic or epidemic will impact how you perceive the severity of that disease and how it may impact you as an individual. We see it now with COVID-19 and how willing or unwilling folks are to get vaccinated. But many young folks and millennials didn’t experience the height of the HIV epidemic. Between that, non-uniform sex education and limited exposure to HIV prevention tools and education, new HIV infections are trending younger. We all experience being young and the feeling of invincibility that can come with it, but coupled with reduced access to sexual health testing services during COVID-19 and increased new infections in younger age groups, there is cause for alarm. Through our youth-focused programs, we provide young people with sexual health tools for educating their peers and provide access to HIV/STI and pregnancy testing.” (Dr. Colleen Lane, Medical Site Director at Whitman-Walker’s Max Robinson Center).
WI: Whitman-Walker recently marked its 43rd year of service. Where does that position the organization among its peers and other comparable organizations?
WW: Like many of our fellow LGBTQ-focused federally qualified health centers, Whitman-Walker Health has grown to provide whole-person healthcare services with a specialty in HIV care, but we serve everyone in our community. Many people refer to us as the “AIDS Clinic” – but we are so much more than that. We are a healthcare home for folks navigating drug and alcohol abuse, diabetes and other chronic diseases. We are a place where you can enroll in peer support groups and fill your pharmacy prescriptions. We also offer dental services. Think about Whitman-Walker Health as a one-stop shop for whole-person healthcare ready to meet the care needs of the community. Our ability to meet these needs will only grow in the coming years as we prepare to move our current Max Robinson Center to a 116, 000 square foot facility at St. Elizabeths East Campus.” (Naseema Shafi, CEO at Whitman-Walker Health).
WI: Has HIV/AIDS become a heterosexual disease today in contrast to it being perceived as a “gay disease” in the early years?
WW: Since the beginning of the HIV epidemic, stigma around HIV allowed people to incorrectly call it a “gay disease.” In actuality, and similar to COVID-19, HIV does not discriminate against who it infects. With any virus, it will spread in the communities that it is most present in. For HIV, that started off in many gay communities, but any person who is sexually active is eligible to contract HIV. This is true regardless of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.” (Ramatoulaye Keita, Senior Manager of Community Health at Whitman-Walker Health).
WW: What challenges and opportunities lie ahead for Whitman-Walker?
WW: Whitman-Walker has the opportunity to be a true community partner and healthcare home for communities in Anacostia, Congress Heights and east of the river in how we share HIV prevention tools and how we reduce barriers to accessing care locally in Wards 7 and 8. With our 2023 expansion to St. Elizabeths, Whitman-Walker will be uniquely positioned to care for 15,000 unique patients in southeast DC annually. That is a 200% increase from our capacity at our current Max Robinson Center. The challenge that lies ahead is the aftermath of surviving a pandemic as a nonprofit health center. We know that many businesses are feeling this weight of making ends meet. We are one of them. So, we will really be looking for the support of the community and funders who believe in our mission of helping people live healthy, love openly and achieve equality and inclusion.” (Naseema Shafi, CEO at Whitman-Walker Health).
HIV Prevention Today: Words from Whitman-Walker
- We’ve come a long way in the AIDS epidemic and fighting HIV; an HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. People can live full healthy lives with HIV with access to care and medical adherence.
- When you’re living with HIV: You can use treatment as prevention and undetectable equals untransmittable (#UequalsU). This means that someone who takes HIV medication consistently and as directed will achieve an Undetectable viral load of HIV, making their HIV Untransmittable to another person through sex.
- PrEP: This is a daily pill that’s more than 99 percent effective at preventing HIV through sex. Whitman-Walker officially launched a PrEP Clinic in fall 2017 to make it easier for folks to start and stay on PrEP.
- Know your status by getting tested. Call 202-797-4439 to schedule an HIV/STI testing appointment.
For more information, visit www.whitman-walker.org.