POZ TV : “Make Us All a Priority” Demand HIV/AIDS Advocates - by Oriol R. Gutierrez Jr.

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August 28, 2009

“Make Us All a Priority” Demand HIV/AIDS Advocates

by Oriol R. Gutierrez Jr.

On August 25, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2009 HIV Prevention Conference in Atlanta hosted the first “HIV/AIDS Community Discussion” (a.k.a. "town hall") to start the process of seeking input from people living with and affected by the virus in the creation of a national HIV/AIDS strategy.

The Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP) in the White House will draft the strategy. The three major goals (a.k.a. “pillars”) of the strategy are: reducing HIV incidence; increasing access to care and optimizing health outcomes; and reducing HIV-related health disparities.

As moderator of the event, Dazon Dixon Diallo, founder and president of SisterLove, introduced Jeffrey Crowley, ONAP’s director. Before Crowley said a word, several protestors got up from the audience and took the stage.

Holding a large sheet bearing the phrase “Women >26%” (referring to the statistic that more than 26 percent of HIV infections in the United States as of 2006 were among women), the protestors chanted: “Make women a priority.” As the crowd joined in, the protestors chants eventually substituted “women” with many other groups, ending with the inclusive phrase “we all are a priority.” As they walked into the audience, the protestors chanted "make us all a priority."

The protestors were greeted with a mixed reception from the audience. The three people on stage—Diallo, Crowley and Kevin Fenton, director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention—applauded in support. The audience applause turned into chanting.

The U.S. Positive Women’s Network (PWN) was responsible for the protest. Former POZ cover woman and PWN member Waheedah Shabazz-El spoke with POZ after the event. “The only way to have our voices heard was to be a little disruptive,” Shabazz-El told POZ.

Watch the Shabazz-El interview and footage from the protest below:

After the protestors left the stage, Crowley said: “That’s some good energy.” To underscore his desire for dialogue, Crowley told the audience in his opening remarks: “I had my chance to speak, tonight is your night.”

Crowley then introduced Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who spoke passionately about the importance of fighting HIV/AIDS in the African-American community. “Let’s make more resources available through the Ryan White act—we must do it,” said Lewis.

Fenton followed with a speech that detailed his goals for a national HIV/AIDS strategy. He emphasized the importance of an inclusive strategy for all, but especially for those groups “who are often invisible” in national surveillance data but who are nonetheless disproportionately impacted, such as transgender people, Asians and Pacific Islanders, Native Americans and migrant workers.

Diallo then introduced three local community leaders: Edith Biggers, MD, the lead physician of the Fulton County Department of Health and Wellness Ryan White Clinic; Carlos Del Rio, MD, an infectious disease researcher and a professor at Emory University; and Guy Pujol, the executive director of the AIDS Alliance for Faith and Health. Each was invited to discuss one of the three “pillars” of the strategy.

Biggers recounted the dramatic story of an HIV-positive, pregnant woman without health insurance. She was almost admitted to a hospice, but a social worker with knowledge of the Ryan White program got her life-saving treatment. She gave birth to an HIV-negative baby daughter. Biggers said that reducing HIV incidence requires that we all remember we’re talking about people. “I always want to put a face on HIV,” Biggers said.

Del Rio hammered the point that HIV prevention has not failed because of methodology, but because it has been poorly funded. “The [HIV] epidemic in the U.S. is the worst [HIV] epidemic of any developed country,” Del Rio said. “What we need is something equivalent to a national [domestic] PEPFAR” to optimize health outcomes, he said.

Pujol focused on the use of the phrase “health disparities” as a barrier to reducing HIV-related inequalities between groups affected by the virus. “Rather than to talk about differences or gaps, I think we need to talk about inequality or better yet, equality,” Pujol said. Using a term like “health inequalities” would reframe the conversation and lead to better outcomes, he said.

Diallo then took the reins of the event, preparing the audience for its opportunity to provide feedback. She made it clear that an orderly process was not only expected, but that it would be enforced. Comments were limited to one minute per person. She even subjected herself to the time-keeping rules enforced by the audience to big laughs from all.

She also made it clear that she would favor giving time to local people from Atlanta because there would be other town halls around the country and many in the audience had traveled to Atlanta from those cities.

The audience participation portion went off without interruptions. There was about 45 minutes available and not a moment went by without someone new at one of the six microphones throughout the auditorium making his or her voice heard.

Some of the themes from the vast array of comments included: focusing on groups that have previously been ignored, such as transgender people, Asians and Pacific Islanders; maintaining the treatment and prevention advances that have been attained, such as in the reduction of mother-to-child transmission; increasing faith-based approaches, especially in the African-American and Latino communities; authorizing needle-exchange programs; and providing comprehensive sexual education in schools.

Additional community discussions will take place in Washington, DC; New York City; San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles, California; Los Angeles; Houston; Albuquerque; Jackson, Mississippi; Fort Lauderdale; Minneapolis; Columbia, South Carolina; Puerto Rico; and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Please visit poz.com/advocacy.

Search: Atlanta, Positive Women's Network, prevention, Waheedah Shabazz-El

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