Like a thief in the night, HIV has left its mark on Austin and other black communities hit especially hard by the virus, but new treatments and methods of intervention could save lives.
This was the recent topic of discussion Sept. 6 and Sept. 7 at a post-International World AIDS Conference event sponsored by the Black AIDS Institute and other groups, including The Black Treatment Advocates Network, The South Side Help Center and The AIDS Foundation of Chicago.
Some who participated in the conference at Mercy Hospital’s Family Health Center, 2525 S. Michigan Ave., attended the July international conference in Washington, D.C., to learn about the most up-to-date HIV research, testing and treatment to bring information back home.
“I know in the Austin community we have not done enough intervention to stop, prevent or even halt STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections), and of course HIV is looming right there,” said Austin native Yaa Simpson, an epidemiologist for the Chicago Department of Public Health and member of the Black Treatment Advocates Network.
Simpson said Austin ranks in the top five of Chicago’s 77 community areas with the highest number of HIV infections.
As of June, 21,348 Chicagoans were living with HIV, and in 2012, there were 978 new cases, Simpson said.
Despite progress, methods to prevent and treat HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, are still being debated.
Attendees at the international conference heard researchers, health care providers and advocates from around the world discuss various topics, including whether starting treatment early benefits an infected person.
PrEP, one new HIV prevention discussed at the meeting, requires patients to take a pill each day to reduce their chances of becoming infected with the virus. Past studies have shown when used consistently, the pill is effective, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there needs to be more research to determine the treatment’s side effects.
In addition to the various treatments, methods of intervention were also discussed at the international event and at last week’s post-conference meeting.
In his Sept. 7 keynote speech, Darrell Wheeler, dean and professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Social Work, shared his research on a study that focuses on how community-level intervention strategies can lower the HIV infection rates among gay black men.
The main issue, Wheeler said, is that African-Americans are far more likely to be infected with the HIV virus. He said people either do not know their status or they do but don’t get treatment for a number of reasons.
Wheeler said current intervention methods need urgent scrutiny.
His “culturally-tailored intervention” strategy looks beyond skin color to the “multi-elements” of a person’s life. He said because each person is different, researchers need to examine geography, culture and even U.S. history before implementing intervention strategies.
“You can’t make an intervention for every person,” he said. “You have to recognize that every person who fits into a group doesn’t neatly fit inside the box 100 percent, and so you have to develop interventions that may work for an Austin community versus a Bronzeville community.”
But Wheeler said intervention needs to take place in the community without interfering with its culture.
“If we know in a particular community everyone hangs out on the basketball court on Saturday and they don’t go to the library, well then we need to take the intervention to the basketball court.”
West Sider Dominique Wilson, 19, the youngest member of Chicago’s Black Treatment Advocacy Network, was born HIV positive and has chosen to use his experience to help others.
“I want to make a difference in the world,” the freshman business major at the University of Illinois-Springfield told a group of about 25 at last week’s event.
At least one listener was affected by his story.
“Hearing that young man speak and to see him want to get involved and help out was very inspiring,” Austin resident Patricia Massey said.
She said creating more public awareness is crucial to decreasing the number of those infected with the virus.
And promoting awareness is one way the Black Treatment Advocates Network is working to significantly diminish the number of African-Americans infected with HIV and diagnosed with AIDS.
“We can end AIDS, that’s a truth, Advocates Network’s Simpson said.
“The challenge is how long is this going to take us and how many people have to be impacted before we do it?”