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San Francisco, Oakland Kick Off Nationwide Discussion on HIV/AIDS in America

By Tamara E. Holmes

October 18, 2011

San Francisco, Oakland Kick Off Nationwide Discussion on HIV/AIDS in America

Residents of San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., acknowledged the successes and lamented the challenges involved in ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic, in the first of a series of town hall meetings that seek to define the state of the epidemic in America.

The town hall, held Sept. 30 at San Francisco's City Hall, was part of Road to AIDS 2012, a collaboration between Washington, D.C.-based Community Education Group, the Urban Coalition for HIV/AIDS Prevention Services, pharmaceutical company Merck and AIDS 2012. The Road to AIDS 2012 will seek community input in cities across the country. The responses will be shared at AIDS 2012 in Washington, D.C., when the International AIDS Conference is on American soil for the first time in more than 20 years.

More than 100 people showed up to hear panelists give their thoughts on everything from the National HIV/AIDS Strategy to the Affordable Care Act. But town hall organizers and local leaders were just as interested in hearing the thoughts of the audience. " 'Tenacity' has been a word that has been kept alive in San Francisco, and all of your work has helped us get to the point we are today," San Francisco Director of Health Barbara Garcia told the audience. "We have a long way to go, and I want to encourage you all to make sure you all are heard tonight."

Organizers weren't disappointed. Among the topics brought up by participants were the use of alternative medicine to treat HIV/AIDS, legal protections for people living with HIV and AIDS, the impact of immigration on the epidemic's spread and prevention efforts targeting elderly Americans.

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It is particularly important to examine the state of the epidemic today, said Judith D. Auerbach, Ph.D., former vice president of research and evaluation at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and moderator of the event. This is the 30th year of the epidemic, the United States has its first National HIV/AIDS Strategy and the Affordable Care Act will change the way people purchase their health insurance, Dr. Auerbach pointed out.

This is also a time in which science has changed the world of HIV/AIDS. "We've seen a terrific number of developments in the scientific response to the epidemic," said Dr. Auerbach. The question is, how do we disseminate and use that information? she added. The other big concern of the night: the effect of budget cuts on prevention and treatment efforts in the Bay Area and how to ensure that resources are allotted fairly. "We are all really struggling right now with budget and funding crises at all levels -- local, state, federal and global," Dr. Auerbach said.

Perceptions about the state of the HIV/AIDS crisis varied depending on which side of the Bay residents lived on. "Oakland is the city in the shadow of San Francisco," said panelist Marsha A. Martin, director of Get Screened Oakland, an organization designed to respond to Oakland's HIV epidemic. "I want to raise that as a concept and a construct as we think about where we're headed in HIV today."

Joining Martin on the panel were Grant Colfax, director of HIV prevention and research for San Francisco's Department of Public Health; Charles Fann, community co-chair for the San Francisco HIV Prevention Planning Council; Andrew Forsyth, senior science adviser at the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health; Kabir Hypolite, director of the Office of AIDS Administration for Alameda County; Herb K. Schultz, regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Region IX; and Sharyn Grayson, co-chair at the Collaborative Community Planning Council in Oakland.

One of the highlights of the evening was the appearance of Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) from Oakland, a founding co-chair of the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus. "In reflecting on the last three decades, I'm amazed by the progress we've made," Lee told the audience. "We're experiencing an unprecedented focus on domestic HIV/AIDS with [AIDS 2012] and the National HIV/AIDS Strategy."

But Lee also echoed the sentiments of many panelists and audience members when she spoke of what remains to be done to deal with the HIV/AIDS crisis. "I'm concerned about the sense of urgency," she said. "In many ways it's been replaced with complacency." She implored the audience to continue to speak out about the need for resources to aid in prevention and treatment, both domestically and abroad. "We have the opportunity to highlight the linkage between the global epidemic and the one in our country," she said, to a standing ovation.

All in all, the evening showed that many questions surrounding the country's HIV/AIDS strategy moving forward must be ironed out, and participants ensured that AIDS 2012 would not come and go without the Bay Area's input.

"The business model for HIV has changed," said A. Toni Young, executive director for Community Education Group. "This is the opportunity for us to talk about the fact that it has changed and how we are going to move through these changes."

Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes frequently about emotional health and wellness.




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