On Black HIV / AIDS Awareness Day, activists say the fight is not over
Ray Lowe has the kind of HIV success story that the healthcare community loves to hear. As one of the 471,500 African Americans living with HIV / AIDS, Lowe’s healthy and well-managed lifestyle is one advocated by the organizers of the National HIV / AIDS Awareness Day for Blacks observed on February 7.
The African-American gay man arrived in New York City from Atlanta in 2014 destitute, depressed and broken by HIV, but drawn to the city’s reputation for comprehensive HIV / AIDS services. He was so ill when he arrived that he was admitted to a hospital to treat dangerously low T cell counts caused by inadequate medical care in Georgia. Soon after, Lowe traveled to Harlem United, a community health center that offers a 360-degree circle of service to people living with HIV / AIDS.
Four years later, Lowe sits in a Harlem United office and explains that his symptoms are under control. Her smile is bright and her costume impeccable. He is now an employee who travels to Washington to testify before lawmakers. He teaches advocacy to his colleagues.
“Harlem United saved my life,” said Lowe, 39. “If it hadn’t been for Harlem United I probably would have died. If I hadn’t died I would probably be in a mental institution. If it hadn’t been for Harlem United I would probably be exhausted I know I wouldn’t be sitting here.
Unfortunately, stories like Lowe’s are the anomaly. There have been medical advancements in the past 30 years since the emergence of HIV and AIDS, both marked by a failure of the immune system. But that progress is slow to reach African Americans, who are the racial / ethnic group most affected by HIV and AIDS, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2016, African Americans accounted for 44% of HIV cases, despite making up 12% of the U.S. population, according to the CDC. The agency reports that 48% of people diagnosed with AIDS in the United States in 2015 were African American.
Grim numbers like these prompted health care advocates to launch National HIV / AIDS Awareness Day for Blacks in 1999 as a way to tackle the growing HIV / AIDS epidemic among African Americans. . Compliance is designed to educate, promote community participation, test people and provide treatment. The theme for this year is “Stay the course, the fight is not over!” and community groups across the country are organizing educational events to reverse the trends.
Lowe’s story, which includes depression and inadequate medical care, is typical of many.
The son of a Newton bishop, SC, attempted suicide at 17, distressed by his attraction to men – especially as a parent of a church leader. He turned to Atlanta and its large gay African American male population, but eventually noticed that he could no longer lift hospital patients at work. Without insurance, he returned home to North Carolina for a medical visit. It was then that a nurse told him in a neutral tone that he had HIV.
“She said, ‘Sign this form and let us know you’re not going to have sex with anyone,'” Lowe recalls. “I said, ‘Ma’am, I’m not signing any form,'” adding that he ran out of the building.
When he told his mother, who was waiting in a car outside, she broke down. “It was one of the most traumatic days of my life,” he said.
Lowe returned to Atlanta, where he had another job without health insurance. Obamacare was not available in Republican-controlled Georgia, Lowe said. An Atlanta doctor told Lowe his T-cell count was dangerously low, but offered no treatment options. “You just have to do what you have to do,” Lowe recalls.
It was then that Lowe traveled to New York.
One of the biggest issues facing people of color living with HIV and AIDS is the apparent bias in the medical community, said Terrance Moore, deputy executive director of the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors ( NASTAD). After being diagnosed with HIV in 2001, he was prescribed medication with severe side effects. “I remember being told, ‘Well, that’s what you got; you’re in this situation, ”Moore said.
Years later he joined the NASTAD staff and his colleagues helped him find additional resources. “I remember telling colleagues that I was not doing well with the meds and a doctor told me that was all they had, and they sort of laughed and said, ‘No , This is not the case. Here’s a supplier you can turn to – they’re fantastic, ”Moore recalls.
Moore also stressed that HIV and AIDS do not exist in isolation. “In this particular population of men, individuals do not have access to high quality health care or insurance, or to information about what it means to be virally deleted,” he said.
“And then there are all the other social factors, whether it’s homelessness or housing or whatever… and when you put it all together, HIV is probably not the most pronounced thing that concerns them.
Harlem United are trying to support these issues, said Brian Murphy, communications director. The public needs to understand that African American men get the best results when it comes to condom use, so the gap is not about irresponsibility.
“If you don’t know where you’re going to sleep or if you have mental health issues or domestic violence issues, it’s really hard to live a healthy life,” Murphy said.
Another problem is that the disease is predominant among young African Americans, a generation that did not exist in the 1980s when AIDS meant quick death, said Jessica Ziemba, medical assistant at Harlem United.
“The fear it once caused is not seen by this generation,” Ziemba said. “Many young people see it as a chronic disease which is now controllable. There’s always a stigma and that’s why people don’t get tested and treated, but once they have it, they say, “I’m just going to take a pill.
Ziemba said she is also seeing patients engage in higher risk behaviors. About half of Harlem United’s male clients who have sex with men have taken crystal meth, which has become a club drug in New York City, she said.
But there is hope.
While HIV diagnoses among African-American gay and bisexual men aged 13 to 24 increased 87% between 2005 and 2014, they have declined 2% since 2010, according to the CDC. There is PrEP, the pre-exposure prophylaxis, which can prevent HIV and AIDS in those who have engaged in high-risk behaviors. And NASTAD offers education on HisHealth.org and WellVersed.Org sites, Terrence Moore said.
The key to long-term survival and a good quality of life, Lowe said, is for people to educate themselves.
“It’s about picking up and drinking water,” he said. “Go drink the water for yourself.”
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