This year's annual United States Conference on AIDS was held in September in Washington, D.C. The focus was on the social determinants that have proven to be the stubborn factors that continue to contribute to the steady rate of new infections. There is much to celebrate about how science has developed medicines that are helping to control the progression of HIV in those who have been diagnosed as being carriers of the retrovirus. There is still a great deal of work needed to be done to improve prevention efforts, deploy educational strategies, and diminish or extinguish the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS.
Emphasis was placed on social determinants by making the parallel between the "Black Lives Matter" movement, and the disproportionate effect that HIV and AIDS has had on the Black community.
Although there are subsets of the Black community, like MSM (same-gender-loving men), that deserve specific attention as it pertains to the messages and services being directed to high-risk populations, the connection to the Black Lives Matter message provided an opportunity to be focused on an important demographic that are disproportionately affected by HIV. Black women are amongst the highest rate of new infections in the U.S. Mobilizing around the Black Lives Matter movement also provided an opportunity to tap into the youthful energy of the people who are actively pushing for social justice.
Unfortunately, this year's conference was consistent in its lack of focus, or even acknowledgement of the experiences of heterosexual Black men. Washington, D.C. activist and service provider, Corrie Franks, bemoaned the fact that heterosexual Black men have never had a voice, or even a seminar, at any U.S. Conference on AIDS. That fact made this year's gathering a great time to address the plight of the Black family, and make the observation that Black men are the ones who are being disproportionately killed by police, and how Black women are being exposed to the virus by black men, and vice versa. The association was eloquently alluded to by civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, during his motivational talk to the over 3,000 attendees. I guess the question is the same for the Black men on death row that Bryan has successfully defended, as it is for Black heterosexual men affected by HIV. The question is, which Black lives matter?
Of all the wonderful speakers that graced the stages and breakout sessions of the conference, the prolific "Ted Talks" speaker Bryan Stevenson, was the most well received. His stories of his experiences arguing cases for Black men appealing death row convictions served as the emotional segue that helped the audience identify with the trauma that all Americans live with.
Mr. Stevenson made the salient point that the trauma of slavery and Jim Crow are contributing factors to the contentions that the #BlackLivesMatter movement makes in an effort to point to healing solutions. That point was not lost on the HIV advocates, activists, service providers, and most certainly persons living with HIV/AIDS. We unanimously resonated and expressed great enjoyment during his oration. The talk by Bryan was an amazing way to help the sometimes demographically segmented group of advocates see and feel the commonality of the missions and needs of those affected by HIV.
On the prevention front, a great deal of emphasis was put on the currently available information regarding PrEP, (pre-exposure prophylaxis).
The Gilead drug, Truvada, is approved and being used as a preventative medicine in order to empower an HIV-negative person to protect themselves from contracting HIV. Although PrEP is currently being more widely used by gay men at this time, there are more studies being done in order to further prove its efficacy with women. PrEP is one of the most exciting new biological advances in the area of HIV prevention, and it takes advantage of the longtime experience we have with the safe use of Truvada. Truvada has been successfully used by HIV-positive people for years. Longtime advocate and director of the Black AIDS Institute, Phill Wilson, shared with our contingent of social media correspondents that drug maker Gilead (makers of Truvada) has not done any media marketing campaigns to date. Medical professionals, as well as those who would benefit most from PrEP, i.e. women who want to have children, heteromagnetic (+/-) couples, sex workers, and others, are all in need of greater awareness and education about how PrEP can be a potential game changer in the quest to create an AIDS-free generation. Hopefulness was the pervading attitude about PrEP, and once again, different sexual behavioral groups had varying levels of hope. The most cautious, and the least informed and studied, appears again to be Black heterosexual men.
Social media is democratizing each person's ability to express themselves globally, and connect with others in an attempt to listen and be heard. Conference organizer NMAC (National Minority AIDS Council) collaborated with Gilead and the Black AIDS Institute to provide fellowship grants to 20 bloggers from various states, ethnicities, genders, ages, and sexual orientations, in order to capture and share disparate views on the information shared at the conference, as well as our different perspectives on everything that had anything to do with HIV. As one of those fellows, I introduced live streaming using the Meerkast application to interact in real time with people worldwide (France, Netherlands, etc.). Participants in those Meerkast interactions numbered over 350 at times, and they were able to interact with presenters and fellow social media fellows. There was a conscious effort to maximize the potential reach of the information using the various tools available. It was an exhilaratingly ironic experience to be on the cutting edge of technology, even though I was the most senior fellow.
Many longtime survivors of HIV were encouraged by the honesty, open mindedness, and willingness of young LGBT activist to get beyond the labels and stigma within the HIV community. In numerous sessions I attended, there was a crumbling of the walls of separations that race, age, gender, and sexual orientation often cause. It is evident that there are still information gaps and attitude adjustments that need to be addressed if we are to de-stigmatize HIV.
I am grateful that we have this space in TheBody.com, and places like RISE multimedia health and wellness magazine, to explore the issues that will help us continue to evolve with intention towards an AIDS-free generation. I hope you, too, will make your voice heard.