man wearing red ribbon
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Community health clinic Whitman-Walker, in partnership with the Smithsonian museum, is hosting a series of events this week in honor of World AIDS Day.  The annual observance is dedicated to commemorating those who have lost their lives to the life-threatening disease while spreading awareness of the progress, support, and equity needed in the fight to end the harrowing epidemic. 

According to the District Department of Health’s 2021 Annual Surveillance Report, the total population of residents living with HIV stood at roughly 12,161 residents (or 1.7 percent), with 217 new cases recorded in 2020, a notable decrease from prior years.  But despite the decline in new yearly infections, Whitman-Walker’s External Affairs and Community Coordinator, Dwight Venson, highlights the continued need for progress concerning medical access and treatment for more disadvantaged communities.

“While infection rates are going down every year, [there is] still a prominence of the virus, [and] communities that have been disproportionately affected by [it].  It is still important even today, to be having these conversations to acknowledge treatment and prevention methods, and to be bringing resources and access to communities where it has not always been present,” said Venson.

The medical clinic’s theme for this year’s events enforces the message of empowerment and the dire importance of HIV health education.  Included in the chain of events between Thursday and Sunday are; free HIV testing, a candlelight vigil paying tribute to the lives lost to the viral disease, guest speakers of the organization and those who are thriving while living with the disease, and a conversation with Whitman-Walker Health CEO Naseema Shafi.  

Beloved member of the organization’s Silver Strider’s group, SaVanna Wanzer who will also speak during Thursday’s World AIDS Day event. She acknowledges the push for awareness of the once tumultuous journey to be just as important today as it was when the fight began since the first recorded domestic AIDS diagnoses in 1981.

“We are still in the struggle.  We are still in struggle medically, and mourning the loss of people that have gone on.  Can you imagine going to wakes maybe two times a day, five times a week, for a memorial service?  That’s the way it used to be.  Imagine that,” Wanzer shared.

The outbreak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic brought about massive fear, stigma, and isolation when addressing the HIV population in both medical and social spaces.  Wanzer still recalls her earlier days living with HIV since being diagnosed in 1985, as she illustrates being one of many HIV patients relegated to one ward within District of Columbia General hospital.  The pinch of isolation and shame remain at the memory of being served food in a cart outside of her door because medical providers were too afraid to come inside each patient’s room to feed them.  

Discriminatory practices and behavior continue within medical spaces, sadly discouraging many people in need.  Wanzer highlights the need for more available affirming services, and clinical spaces representing every sector of the community undergoing HIV illness, as it plays a huge part in making a safe space for those residents within varying communities (i.e. pronouns, or transgendered community), and provides every HIV patient with the intricate attention needed to address multiple diagnoses.  Depression, for example, presents itself as a major byproduct of battling life with HIV, as many positive residents face the rejection and isolation of family and community support.  

“Especially during the holidays, it is a difficult time.  When you think of the holidays, everybody is around the kitchen table laughing, joking, and teasing one another.  The smell of good food, hugs, love, and everything,” said Wanzer.  “The holidays are a more depressing time for us, but yet it is a more understanding time among us.  That part is very, very important because we are each other’s strength.  It doesn’t matter what color you are or what your background is, we all cry and feel the same emotion of being rejected.  The only thing we want is love and acceptance.”

Wanzer, like so many others battling the disease, looks to her community as a haven, and gateway to feeling human during their journey, particularly during the holiday season to provide moral support and company.  Whitman-Walker continues to be of support to all members of the HIV community who seek medical help, and community support in their journey with the life-long condition.

“We are not the only organization that is going to be having World AIDS Day events, and that just stresses how important this issue is to communities.  No matter where folks are going, the fact that there are multiple resources and options for people to go to just speaks volumes to how important this issue is,” Venson said.

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