Aids Partnership Michigan marks first 20 years of effort

By |2003-02-27T09:00:00-05:00February 27th, 2003|Uncategorized|

By Brent Dorian Carpenter

From left to right standing: Doug Pizzala, Curtis Lipscomb, Richard Vallade, Barb Murray and Hank Milbourne. From left to right sitting: Staci Hirsch and Charlotte Lowery. APM celebrates 20 years in HIV/AIDS support and education. BTL photo by Brent Carpenter.
“We are in the center of the epidemic in the state,” Murray says. “Detroit is Ground Zero.”

DETROIT – It is an organization “committed to the relentless pursuit of an end to AIDS” that is almost as old as the epidemic itself.
In fact, AIDS Partnership Michigan (APM), which marks its 20th anniversary this month, traces its origins to a time before HIV had been scientifically identified and the disease was even called AIDS.
A special dinner is planned March 3 to commemorate the date.
“We’re here for the long haul,” says Barbara Murray, APM’s Executive Director. “That’s a pretty big 180-degree turn from the 1983 notion that there would be a cure for AIDS and that we would one day go out of business.”
The core organization, Wellness Network, was founded in 1983 by a group of seven people, meeting in private homes, concerned about an emerging disease then dubbed “gay-related immune deficiency,” or G.R.I.D. A merger in 1996 with AIDS Care Connection, a semi-independent division of the United Way, led to the current APM.
The combined specialties of each have been of great benefit to the HIV-positive community. With 30 full-time employees and 250 volunteers, APM offers case management, support groups, phone lines and a buddy program.
“In the late 80s, what we did, bluntly, was to help people die,” Murray said. “There were no protease inhibitors, only AZT. It was very difficult. I didn’t want to see that [AIDS] quilt again.”
Indeed, it could be said that, 22 years into the epidemic, the need for APM services has only grown.
Despite the fact that overall U.S. mortality rates from AIDS have fallen dramatically since 1996, the year protease inhibitor drugs revolutionized HIV treatment, new infections continue to climb alarmingly.
“If you factor it out mathematically, we have fewer deaths and a larger number of people living with HIV and AIDS,” explained Hank Milbourne, APM associate executive director. “Our work is increasing, not diminishing.”
Murray and Milbourne warn against complacency, explaining that AIDS has become a “problem within a problem.”
“We are in the center of the epidemic in the state,” Murray says. “Detroit is Ground Zero.”
She also warns of the growing trends of syphilis and Hepatitis C co-infection. In 1989, Murray and Milbourne said, 90 percent of their clientele were men. Today, 40 percent are African American women, a clear reflection of the vectoring infection trends in southeast Michigan and the nation.
Moreover, of APM’s 684 clients in 2002, 50 percent have suffered some form of physical or sexual assault. Thirty percent have a dual diagnosis involving a mental health issue.
“Trent,” a bipolar AIDS patient who requested his real name be withheld, gives APM glowing reviews. He says the “Body Guards” program – a buddy system designed to partner up infected individuals to assist with medicine compliance – literally helped to save his life.
“It works,” Trent said. “Before I got here three years ago, I was a mess. My health had crashed and it looked like I was going to die. Taking all those meds was not easy. The Body Guards gave me the tools and the motivation to do what I needed to do to survive.”
Ironically and horribly, in the face of state budget cuts, APM is now fighting for its own survival, not just that of its clients.
“We have a broader understanding of whom to reach out to,” says Murray. “But we have experienced funding cuts that have impacted two of our programs. We have made a conscious decision to raise our own money so that we are not entirely dependent on the government.”
Neither director harbors any doubt that the organization’s groundbreaking work has had huge impact in the metro area over the last two decades.
“When I first started, it wasn’t unusual to go to 30 or 40 funerals a month,” Milbourne says. “We’ve gone down to one or two a month, but there has been a recent spike.”
Murray glows with pride when speaking of her colleague, saying, “The best thing we ever did was to bring our organizations together.”
APM’s anniversary event is scheduled for Monday, March 3, in downtown Detroit, at Intermezzo restaurant. A cocktail reception begins at 6 p.m., followed by dinner at 7 p.m. and a program at 8 p.m. Susan Ager, the Detroit Free Press columnist who was the first reporter in Michigan to write about AIDS, will be the keynote speaker. A video produced by David Smith will honor APM’s volunteers. Tickets are $75.
The anniversary dinner does not replace APM’s annual “Time Warp” fundraiser, which is scheduled for May 10 at the Roostertail.

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Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.