July 12, 2012
Connecting people living with HIV to appropriate medical care and treatment has become a key strategy in ending the AIDS epidemic -- one even more critical in Black communities, which have tremendous health-related disparities. But simply "linking" a newly diagnosed HIV-positive client to services isn't enough. "We have to go a step further and retain them in care," says Vanessa Mills, the executive director of Empower "U," one of the first Black HIV/AIDS community-based organizations in Miami-Dade County. "Sometimes you have to drop what you're doing to make sure it happens," Here, Mills shares how she recently walked the talk.
The Black AIDS Institute was recently in Miami to deliver a presentation on new biomedical interventions and treatment strategies. One of the key strategies was "treatment as prevention" -- linking HIV-positive clients to care as soon as possible after their diagnosis. This is critical because people who seroconvert remain highly infectious until they are treated, which makes them much more likely to transmit the virus to others.
After the presentation, I was driving to Empower "U" with the Institute's consultant Leisha McKinley-Beach. I noticed a familiar face on the corner: a client who had fallen out of care. Despite its appearance of conspicuous wealth, Miami has another side. Liberty City is almost entirely Black, it has the second-highest number of HIV infections in Miami-Dade County and unemployment and foreclosure rates are sky-high. It's not unusual for people to fall out of care and then to beg or to exchange sex for money or drugs. When you see this, you can't think, "Oh, I'm an executive director. I can't get out my car." You have to engage people with respect and meet them where they are.
So I stopped the car and spoke briefly with her. Then I called our Ryan White case manager to report that this person was on the corner with a cup in her hand begging for money and to have someone bring her in.
Our organization targets interventions for high-risk groups and for those who are already infected -- and that's what I did that day on the street corner. If everyone works together as one "village," we can really have an impact on HIV/AIDS in communities of color.
As told to Rod McCullom, who has written and produced for ABC News and NBC and whose reporting and analysis have appeared in Ebony, The Advocate, ColorLines, The Body and other media. McCollum blogs on politics, pop culture and Black gay news at rod20.com.