With a rate of HIV infection in Detroit almost four times higher than that of Ingham and Saginaw Counties as of a 2017 statewide HIV study by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, it’s fair to say that the city’s struggle with the disease is ongoing. It found that HIV infection is particularly impactful among African-American people across the state, with 11 times more males and 13 times more females who are infected compared to the white population. However, as bleak as those statistics may look from the outside, there are groups working toward HIV’s eradication within the city altogether. Arguably the biggest of them all is Connect 2 Protect, a coalition made up of community organizations fighting the disease and pooling resources to raise awareness and education about stopping its spread. Registered Nurse Ayanna Walters is its coordinator.
“C2P started out as a research project under the Adolescent Trials Network for HIV/AIDS Interventions, and it started in 2012 and ended in 2015 because of the funding and they got all their data. Our medical director, Dr. Elizabeth Secord, wanted to continue the mission and continue C2P and I started here in [Wayne State University’s] Horizons Clinic in 2007 as a research nurse and just got more involved in the community,” Walters said. “… By doing the research, I’ve seen the numbers, I’ve seen the clients that have come through with different scenarios and I said, ‘We have to do something in the community to get everyone to get everyone to wake up!’”
That’s when Walters got involved and founded Warriors Achieving Knowlege Education Understanding Pathways Purpose or WAKE UPP, a nonprofit dedicated to making people, specifically youth, aware of sex education and preventative measures for sexually transmitted diseases and infections. It was because of Walters’ push for community awareness that Secord approached her about getting involved with the continuation of C2P. It wasn’t long before the group was having regular meetings.
Upcoming Activism: PrEP & Proud Campaign Sept. 14
Today, the coalition group has grown to regularly meet with dozens of local HIV-prevention groups and is now planning its latest event: the C2P Detroit PrEP & Proud Campaign. To be held on Sept. 14 at the Wayne County Community College Downtown Campus, this event will feature free HIV testing; blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose screenings; spoken word and music performers; a free gift card giveaway; and free food. Walters said the event is an attempt at a hassle-free way to get Detroiters interested in preventing the spread of HIV via Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis or PrEP, an HIV-prevention medication that reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by over 90 percent.
“I would say that the majority of our patients who are newly diagnosed didn’t know about PrEP and I think that’s disturbing because PrEP has been out for the last four years. Because we did a PrEP study and also there’s a lot of trust issues when it comes to medications, especially in the African-American community,” she said. “First, we don’t like to go to the doctor and just taking the medicine. And even the stigma of taking PrEP: you can be heterosexual and take PrEP but not everyone knows that [and asks], ‘Oh, why are you taking PrEP?’ The stigma is just around medication linked to HIV and that makes it an issue. I have a lot of issues, too, having our clients come in and be on insurance and a month or so later not on insurance.”
Walters said that attending the September campaign will provide answers to getting on PrEP, its effectivity and how to combat stigma. The last two hours of the day’s event will also serve as a kick-off rally to the newly branded Detroit Walks to End HIV (formerly known as AIDS Walk Detroit).
“Initially, when we got that the Walk was going to happen, we talked about doing the campaign so one of the suggestions was to have the campaign a week prior to the walk to tie into the walk, and then … they decided to collaborate with us that Saturday and have a kick-off rally for it,” Walters said, referencing the fact that the Walk has been postponed to allow for a revamped version next year in 2020. “Sometimes, you have to reword things to get peoples’ attention.”
To find out more about C2P visit the Connect to Protect-Detroit Facebook page. The PrEP & Proud Campaign will last from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 14 at the Wayne County Community College Downtown Campus. The last two hours of the event will be dedicated to the Detroit Walks to End HIV kick-off event.