Keep walking, keep talking — AIDS Walk strives to keep the conversation going about HIVFeature Story, Latest Issue, Section 4A Thursday, September 14th, 2017
When it comes to helping in the fight against HIV, AIDS Walk & Run San Diego organizers are encouraging people to both walk the walk and talk the talk.
Leading up to this year’s 28th annual event Saturday, Sept. 30, The San Diego LGBT Community Center launched the “Keep Walking. Keep Talking” campaign. Participants were invited to share what they want to “Keep Talking” about with regards to HIV. Many addressed the need to continue the discussions about HIV prevention, current treatments and about ending the stigma associated with HIV. Some wanted to make special note of loved ones lost to the disease.
It is those conversations, Center officials say, that are vital to ending new HIV infections and getting those who are HIV positive to undetectable viral load levels so they cannot transmit the virus.
David Vance, 25, is the co-chair of The Center’s Young Professionals Council and also a PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) coordinator for The Center. Vance says that the dialogue around HIV is helping more people understand the options that are available to protect themselves better, but that more work needs to be done.
“When I came into my job, I knew a lot of facts about HIV. I knew a lot about PrEP. I knew a lot about stigma and why it’s important to fight it,” Vance said. “But what I’ve really learned in working with people and talking about HIV is that you have to figure out how to talk about sexual health, number one, in a way that’s normalized, and number two, in a way that fits into people’s lives in a whole person way.
“The vast majority of people who come into test now know about PrEP; they at least know what it is. More and more people who walk through the door know about undetectability. They may not be 100 percent clear on the details, but they’ve heard and they are aware that that is a possibility,” Vance observed. “This level of knowledge in the community is much higher than it was a couple of years ago.
“Even though PrEP and HIV is what I’m focused on, the person who’s coming in has 80,000 other things going on in their life besides getting on PrEP” Vance continued. “We have to find a way where talking about sexual health is just talking about health; where it’s as normal as talking about any other aspect of their life.”
The Young Professionals Council is fielding a team for AIDS Walk, and Vance says it’s an important way for its members to contribute to the conversation and to put into action the skills they learned during the Young Professionals Academy.
“I think, first and foremost, leadership is about service. Leadership isn’t about lifting yourself up as a leader, it’s about serving other people,” Vance said. “AIDS Walk is the largest fundraiser for San Diego County, and this is a way to impact our community in a real way and that’s the most important thing.
“This is a really good opportunity for people in the YPC to put some of the skills they learned into practice. It’s a good way to get your feet wet with fundraising for the greater benefit of the community,” Vance continued. “It’s about educating our community, remembering our history and moving forward at the same time. It’s about leading by example.”
Vance noted that while the idea of fundraising can sound intimidating, especially for younger adults, the members of the Young Professionals Council are committed to finding ways to engage their peers for a good cause.
“If you’re a 25 year old, fundraising sounds like something you do when you have 20-plus years of work experience and you have a lot of friends with a lot of money,” Vance said. “So it’s incredibly inspiring to see people in their twenties raising hundreds and hundreds, and sometimes even thousands of dollars. It’s clear there’s something we can do, too.”
At press time, the Young Professionals Council was one of the top five fundraising teams, having raised more than $7,500. Funds from AIDS Walk & Run support HIV services and prevention programs at The Center, and have also supported the work of several local agencies, including Being Alive, Christie’s Place, Family Health Centers, Fraternity House, Mama’s Kitchen, North County LGBTQ Resource Center, Pozabilities, San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program, San Diego Youth Services, San Ysidro Health Center, Stepping Stone, Strength for the Journey, Townspeople, UCSD Mother Child and Adolescent HIV Program and the Vista Community Clinic.
It’s not just funds the YPC members are raising. They are also committed to continuing to raise awareness about HIV.
“Frankly, I don’t think I got any messages about HIV when I was growing up,” Vance recalled. “Where I was at (Wisconsin), the homophobia was less about gay people being sinful and we don’t like them, it just wasn’t spoken of at all. There were no words that I heard about LGBT or HIV. There was no formal sex education, let alone one that included LGBT issues. I can’t even remember the first time I heard about it. But I do remember when I first started coming out, some of my family members were saying, ‘Be careful.’ It was a subtle way of saying ‘Be careful you don’t get HIV.’”
Vance noted that young people today are growing up with different images and messages, but that it’s still important to have open conversations about what’s really happening in their lives, particularly when it comes to sexuality.
“The messages that young people need to hear are that it’s OK and it’s necessary to talk about these things openly,” Vance said. “And that there’s no shame in talking openly about sexuality and sexual health, and what we can do to improve our sexual health. The silence and the lack of information can perpetuate fear and stigma, but also increases the rates of HIV infection.
“There are many different ways in which you can stay sexually healthy. There’s not one singular option. It’s about finding the option that’s best for that individual person,” Vance continued. “There’s no shame; there’s nothing wrong with living with HIV. If you are living with HIV, or become HIV-positive, it does not mean your life is over. It doesn’t mean that you’re not worthy or that you can’t live a happy, joyous, fulfilled life, regardless of your status.”
That’s the message that has driven The Center’s #BeTheGeneration campaign, a strategic effort to end new HIV transmission in San Diego.
“Early detection is the key,” said Dr. Delores A. Jacobs, chief executive officer of The Center. “Early detection is key for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and that’s what is vital for HIV. People who are sexually active should be tested for HIV one to three times per year.
“We have these tools – early detection, PrEP, PEP treatment, medication. There are tools available if you test negative to help you stay negative. There are tools available from the moment you test positive,” Jacobs said. “For those who test positive, it’s vital to immediately connect to treatment and medication. Those who get and stay connected to treatment and medication live longer, healthier lives. And with treatment, people can get to undetectable viral load levels and then can’t transmit the virus.
“This is not where we were 20 years ago, and yet, this still is not over,” Jacobs continued. “We know there are disparities in care and treatment, particularly for Latinos and African Americans. There’s not easy enough access to testing, treatment and medication. We’re dedicated to resolving these disparities. We’re all dedicated to ending new cases of HIV infection. That is within reach if we bear down and focus.”
And that’s the work of #BeTheGeneration and other efforts supported by AIDS Walk, to encourage HIV testing, to educate San Diegans about the full range of options and to encourage medical providers to make routine HIV testing more available, to strengthen HIV prevention efforts, to ensure that people who are HIV positive are connected to treatment, to stop the fear and stigma still too often associated with being HIV positive and to advocate for public policies that provide people at risk for HIV full access to medical options to prevent HIV and to ensure treatment for those who are positive.
“AIDS Walk really is the perfect vehicle to bring us all together, no matter what our experiences have been around HIV. It’s not just remembering our history and those we’ve lost, or just about protecting those living with it now,” Vance said. “People are there with a variety of different experiences. Some people have been living with HIV for decades. There are others who lived through the epidemic and lost their friends. There are others who never had AIDS in their world, and that the world of HIV now is that it’s a manageable condition.
“We have people there from every point in the history of HIV/AIDS. In a very real way, it’s a great opportunity to get people talking and exchanging that information,” Vance said. “Certainly HIV is very manageable and we’ve made a lot of advances, but there are still too many people diagnosed each year. But we also have new and different ways with which we can manage it.”
AIDS Walk & Run San Diego
Saturday, Sept. 30
Normal and Harvey Milk streets in Hillcrest
6 a.m. — on-site registration begins
7:20 a.m. – Run begins
7:30 a.m. – Walk begins
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