Community group works to end HIV/AIDS stigma

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HIV and AIDS disproportionately affects African-Americans and the Austin community, but members of the Westside HIV/AIDS Regional Planning Council are working to end the stigma associated with the virus, and promote services available to residents living with the illness.

The Westside HIV/AIDS Regional Planning Council, or WHARP, \along with state Rep. Camille Lilly (78th) and Rep. Derrick Smith (10th), met earlier this month to discuss the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Austin in light of Chicago’s World AIDS Day, which takes place Dec. 1.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 1.1 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

African-Americans account for 59 percent of those living with HIV/AIDS, according to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

And about 625 out of every 100,000 people in Austin were living with HIV/AIDS as of 2009, according to data obtained from the Chicago Department of Public Health and analyzed by the Windy City Times.

Beverley Walker-Donley, WHARP chair and executive director of the Greater Westside Development Corp., said there are multiple factors that have caused the increase of HIV/AIDS in Austin over the years.

She said men who have sex with men are the leading target population for HIV/AIDS in Chicago.

And Austin has one of the highest numbers of incarcerated individuals being released back into the community.

“Even though they say men that are in jail … don’t have sex with other men that are in jail, we are finding that there is a relationship somewhere,” she said.

“It’s caused the numbers in Austin to go up.”

The Rev. Doris Green, WHARP vice chair and director of correctional health and community affairs at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, said the majority of people in prison and jail have HIV/AIDS when they enter correctional facilities.

“It’s not like they are going in and getting it,” Green said.

“They had it already. Then they come back to the same community.”

Austin has also seen an increase in the number of women infected with HIV, along with a surge in youth ages 13 to 24 contracting the virus, Walker-Donley said.

Unprotected sex, stigma and access to condoms are other factors contributing to the prevalence, Walker-Donley said.

She added Chicago also has a high rate of sexually transmitted diseases, such as gonorrhea and Chlamydia.

“That also makes a person more vulnerable to becoming affected with HIV,” she said.

Katherine, 46, whose last name is beening withheld to protect her privacy, was infected with HIV in 1996. She currently lives in Lawndale but used to live in Austin and still attends church in the community.

Katherine, who works as an HIV peer educator on the West Side, said HIV is not a badge of honor she wears. It’s a hard pillow to lay on, she said, but HIV is not all gloom and doom.

“We have babies that are healthy, and we get married,” Katherine said. “The only difference between a negative and positive person is something is wrong with my blood.”

When Katherine first learned she had HIV, she was angry. But over the years she was empowered through education.

“I had a choice,” she said. “Either I was going to be a victim, and live in the dark, or I was going to be a survivor — someone who could help someone else.”

WHARP is focusing its efforts for 2012 on three harm-reductions tactics involving HIV/AIDS:

  • End HIV/AIDS related stigma on the West Side,
  • Promote  HIV/AIDS awareness in the Illinois prisons and Cook County Jail through legislative actions
  • Promote visibility and accessibility of quality HIV/AIDS services and resources on the West Side.

“We are trying to look at the whole picture,” Walker-Donley said.

Rep. Lilly said since Austin is Chicago’s largest community area that means Austin has “more of everything.”

“I’m proud to live in Austin,” she said.

But she added, “I have a problem when statistics are put out there, as if Austin is not worth being considered a place to live.”

She said people should not take Austin’s HIV/AIDS statistics at face value, because there are underlying issues.

“There are just more of us here.”

In Springfield, Rep. Lilly sponsored HB1748 – which passed in the Illinois Senate and House – that requires all inmates, upon arriving at a correctional facility, to be tested for HIV unless they opt out.

Lilly is also working to pass HB3027, which would give Illinois schools the option to choose age-appropriate and medically accurate sex education curriculum, with an emphasis on abstinence, for grades six through 12.

Lilly said the bill has met strong opposition from the religious community and some downstate representatives.

“I understand their concerns about abstinence,” she said.

“I, too, agree with that, but what we are dealing with in our community is that young people are not abstinent.”

Lilly said accurate sex education is “powerful and can save a life.”

Katherine said HIV can be 100 percent eliminated through education and prevention.

“Be mindful in knowing that you are at risk if you are having unprotected sex,” she said.

She encourages everyone, positive or negative, to use protection when having sex. If a partner will not use protection, “then you need to say ‘no,'” she said.

“Never compromise. Empower yourself to say no.”

WHARP members urge anyone with questions about HIV/AIDS or where to find free testing and health facilities to call the state hotline at (800) 243-AIDS (2437).

“This is a self-help tool,” said Michelle Williams, HIV testing specialist for the Circle Family Healthcare Network.

Williams said WHARP will provide free HIV testing at the West Chicago Avenue Library, 4856 W. Chicago Ave., on Thursday to commemorate World AIDS Day.

For more information on WHARP contact Walker-Donley at (773) 485-1715.

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