AIDS Walk Detroit 2016, presented by Delta Air Lines, challenges its supporters to help raise $225,000 through this year’s event on Sept. 25 at the Royal Oak Farmers Market.
In the past 25 years, AIDS Walk Detroit has evolved into the largest grassroots HIV/AIDS fundraiser in Michigan, raising more than $3.8 million to benefit HIV/AIDS services in the state. Just as AIDS Walk Detroit has progressed, so have the many local HIV/AIDS organizations that provide access to high quality, life-extending care, free from stigma and discrimination.
Coming off a milestone anniversary last year, AIDS Walk Detroit Development Coordinator Carissa Rys said HIV/AIDS is “still something that needs attention.”
There is still an HIV epidemic, and it remains a major health issue for the U.S. as reported by the Obama Administration in the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, updated in July 2015 to reflect the accomplishments and the lessons learned since the original strategy was released in 2010. But there is a lot of work to be done. There are 50,000 new diagnoses each year. That rate has held steady since the mid-1990s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so the number of people living with HIV continues to rise. Looking ahead, the strategy details the principles and priorities to guide the collective national work to address HIV in the U.S. by the year 2020.
So the goal now, Rys said, is to “get back to making sure we increase awareness and continue to support those people locally who are affected by and infected by the virus. We want everybody to come out and support the cause and make those donations which go directly to HIV/AIDS organizations to fund their programs and services.”
Both at-risk youth and other people living with HIV can benefit greatly from these kinds of fundraising events which attract organizations such as the Horizons Project, a highly-acclaimed program of the Wayne State University School of Medicine.
Representatives from the Horizons Health Center in Detroit will create awareness at AIDS Walk Detroit about the resources young people have available to them at the clinic.
Dr. Elizabeth Secord, who sees up to 25 patients a day, warned young people to use condoms and talk about sex in a recent article by The South End.
“It’s important to speak to healthcare providers, HIV workers or someone who can tell you how to increase pleasure with sex using lubricants and condoms and still decrease your risk,” she said.
Secord told TSE that it can be difficult to have conversations about safe sex, and she is “very concerned” about the increase in numbers and lack of education.
“It’s 2016 and we still get phone calls from people asking if it’s safe to be around people with HIV,” she said. “Hello…you are around people with HIV. Whether you know it or not, we have an epidemic.”
Secord said that while needle-swapping is risky, college students having unprotected sex are much more likely to contract HIV than intravenous drug users.
In 2015, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services estimated that 18,800 people in the state were living with HIV. Of all teens diagnosed in the last five years, 82 percent are African-American, of which 64 percent are gay or bisexual, according to the MDHHS.
It could be that HIV and AIDS have fallen off young people’s radars.
“It’s so commonplace. The hype is gone. We have more tests and treatments. We know more about the virus. We don’t see commercials or magazine stories like we did ten years ago,” said Bridget Leonard, a registered nurse and director of Patient Care Services, Nursing Office Operations at the Detroit Medical Center’s Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan.
As president of the newly-formed Detroit chapter of Black Nurses Rock, Leonard organized a team for their first AIDS Walk Detroit in support of family members and friends who have been affected by HIV/AIDS.
“Today, everyone knows someone who has it or had it. We are walking for them,” she said, adding that she is proud to have 139 members already in their group of nurses as of April 2016 that are committed to giving back to their community.
When having “the talk” with her 17-year-old son about HIV, Leonard said he referred to Magic Johnson, someone who acquired the disease more than 20 years ago and appears to be healthy today. So his perception, she said, is that the disease is not serious.
While people living with HIV have a much better chance of surviving and living a higher quality of life now, Leonard said, “please be informed about who you’re with and get the appropriate testing.”
But not enough people get tested, either because they don’t know they should, or because they can’t access the tests. That’s why AIDS Walk Detroit brings public health groups together to help improve people’s understanding of the disease and to provide information about how and where to get tested.
Those that do find out they’re HIV-positive sometimes can’t or won’t take the medicine that keeps the virus in check. Like PrEP, for example. If the prescription drug is taken daily it reduces the risk of contracting HIV via intercourse by more than 90 percent and more than 70 percent via intravenous drug use. But without insurance, it can cost more than $1,000 a month.
When an HIV positive individual takes medication as prescribed, they can reach a point when they have an “undetectable viral load.” This means that there is no active virus in their blood and if an HIV test was administered, their infection would be undetectable. This has contributed to changing HIV from a death sentence to a manageable condition, and drastically reduces the risk of transmission. Several studies have shown that the risk of passing on the virus when a person’s viral load is undetectable is near zero.
STATUS AND TREATMENT
Right now, one of the biggest barriers is the cost. HIV/AIDS organizations nationwide are advocating to make medications more affordable and available.
People living with HIV/AIDS can no longer be discriminated against on the basis of their HIV/AIDS status or other pre-existing health conditions when seeking healthcare coverage because of the Affordable Health Care Act. Thousands more people living with HIV/AIDS have access to Medicaid or a Marketplace health insurance plan. And for people who already have healthcare coverage, there are new limits on out-of-pocket spending and other protections to make coverage more secure.
But in the fast-changing insurance environment, Teresa Roscoe, Executive Director of Health Emergency Lifeline Programs in Detroit, said they see ongoing challenges for people with HIV/AIDS to manage their health insurance needs.
“Having good coverage is vital for people to stay in care and remain adherent with medications. Many of our clients also have financial hardships and struggle to meet their basic needs,” Roscoe said. “Finally, we encounter among some people, particularly in younger age groups, a reluctance to get treatment due to concerns about stigma, feeling overwhelmed with their diagnosis and the burdens of managing a chronic illness.”
In an effort to reduce stigma, UNIFIED – HIV Health and Beyond launched a Status Sexy campaign.
“We believe that there is nothing more sexy than confidence. Confidence in yourself, in your partner and in the bedroom. One way for us to gain that confidence is to know our HIV status,” says the campaign website.
In 2015, AIDS Partnership Michigan and The HIV/AIDS Resource Center brought together more than 60 years of experience and expertise in a merger that created UNIFIED, which services 10 counties in Southeast Michigan.
UNIFIED President and CEO William VanHemert points to a number of positive things happening to reduce disparities, to raise awareness and educate elected officials at the local, state and federal levels about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the community.
MFierce (Michigan Forward in Enhancing Research and Community Equity), a coalition working to reduce the burden of STIs among young gay and bisexual men and transgender women, launched UNIFIED’s new Health Access Initiative this year. The three-year project by the University of Michigan’s Center for Sexuality and Health Disparities is funded by the CDC’s Community Approaches to Reducing STIs Grant. MFierce provides training and technical assistance to local health centers and clinics to provide culturally-responsive care to LGBTQ+ youth.
An MDHHS reports that as of July 2015 there were 146 transgender people ever diagnosed with HIV in Michigan, 113 of whom are living. Of the 113, 44 percent had a diagnosis of stage 3 HIV infection, or AIDS.
U-M is leading a national study, Affirming Voices for Action, to learn more about how transgender and gender non-conforming youth navigate the healthcare system for HIV prevention services and care. The study will help identify optimal HIV services to teens and young adults ages 16-24 who have a gender identity or gender expression that differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.
VanHemert said UNIFIED has hosted house parties, for example, which seems like a “natural fit” to bring together transgender people to increase PrEP distribution within the MSM community.
UNIFIED is also working with the Michigan Coalition for HIV Health and Safety talking to legislators about a modernized HIV criminalization bill. In Michigan, a person living with HIV can go to prison for up to four years for not disclosing their status before any sexual activity, even if there is little or no risk of transmission. HIV is the only virus in Michigan that has a felony to which it is attached. Studies have shown that these laws don’t deter behavior or increase disclosure but deter HIV testing, accessing treatment for those living with HIV and increase stigma and discrimination.
At AIDS Walk Detroit, UNIFIED will showcase and present to the community what the organization is all about, still rooted in HIV, but focusing on ‘and beyond.’
VanHemert said, “We are excited to make Detroit known for the great work that we do.”
AIDS Walk Detroit on Sept. 25 starts around 8:30 a.m. at the Royal Oak Farmers Market. For more information, visit the website or call 248-399-WALK (9255).