November 1, 2011
While HIV-treatment advances have led to a drop of more than 70 percent in the rate of AIDS deaths nationwide, Black Americans are still more likely than Whites to die from the disease. One reason for the disparity: a lack of knowledge among African Americans about the science behind HIV and the latest treatment options that can fight and prevent it. "HIV isn't the death sentence it used to be if people know how to adhere to treatment," says Raniyah Abdus-Samad, training and capacity-building manager at the Black AIDS Institute.
There is no question that science has made great gains in fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Antiretroviral (ARV) medications taken daily can dramatically reduce one's risk of becoming infected with HIV. Not only that, but research has shown that when people with HIV start taking ARVs right after diagnosis, they are less likely to infect others. Likewise, there is clinical evidence that microbicides -- compounds applied inside the vagina -- can prevent HIV infection in women. But despite the breakthroughs, "if Black people don't know about the treatment for HIV, they can't utilize the treatment, and consequently don't get to live and thrive," Abdus-Samad says.
To combat that stark reality, the Black AIDS Institute has launched the Black Treatment Advocates Network (BTAN), a collaboration between the Institute, pharmaceutical company Merck and community organizations across the country. BTAN's mission is to train and mobilize treatment advocates to go into communities and educate Black Americans with HIV about care and treatment options.
The program kicked off in 2010 in Houston; Jackson, Miss.; and Philadelphia, where treatment advocates received intensive science and advocacy training to prepare them to address critical needs in their local communities. After the training sessions, the advocates shared the knowledge with others in their communities through training programs of their own that launched earlier this year. The impact of the 2011 local training programs has been life transforming, organizers say.
"We had people with HIV and AIDS who thought, 'As long as I have my medicine, it's okay if I skip seven days,' " says Tamika Curtis-Stiff, a program director for Canton, Miss.'s G.A. Carmichael Family Health Center, one of the organizers of BTAN Jackson. After going through the training, many of these same people understood that failing to take their medication could jeopardize their lives, Curtis-Stiff adds. Called the Mississippi Treatment Academy for HIV/AIDS Providers, the Jackson training program was run in partnership with My Brother's Keeper in Jackson.
Between June 27 and Aug. 31, three Mississippi training sessions took place, in Jackson, Greenwood and Hattiesburg. "We wanted to offer the training to the people that are actually outreaching, trying to care for people. We also wanted to extend the training to people that are living with the disease and to social workers and case managers," Curtis-Stiff adds. Participants were tested on their knowledge about the science and treatment of HIV/AIDS, and some of the people who answered only two out of 33 questions correctly before the training scored 29 out of 33 afterward, Curtis-Stiff says.
Houston's program, HIV Education & Literacy Program (H.E.L.P) Houston, also proved to be a success, says organizer Danielle Houston, director of Education for Houston's Center for AIDS. The program, developed by the Center for AIDS in partnership with the St. Hope Foundation, also in Houston, focused on training people who work at AIDS service organizations to better understand the science of HIV so that they can communicate that information to their patients and clients.
"We wanted clients to be able to get consistent information across all agencies," says Houston. "If I ask a question in Agency A, then go to Agency B, I get the same answer." Modeled after a college curriculum, the program provided participants with 28 hours of science, research and advocacy information, as well as 16 hours of elective courses. "Once they completed all of that, we had a graduation ceremony," she adds.
The Philadelphia program was created through a partnership with the Health Federation of Philadelphia and Liberation Fellowship Community Development Corp. Called the Philadelphia BTAN Information and Advocacy Project, the eight-month effort focused on training case managers, outreach specialists and prevention counselors.
Moving forward, BTAN has added three new cities to the mix: Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles. "We were so excited and proud to be a part of the programs that our cities launched," says Abdus-Samad. "It's amazing and inspirational to see Black people taking care of Black people."
Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes frequently about emotional health and wellness.