OpEd: AHF - Stirring the National Conscience on HIV/AIDS

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A Look Back at 2015

For the fifth year in a row, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) the largest global AIDS organization, will take part in the Tournament of Roses’ iconic 2016 Rose Parade, on Friday, January 1.

This year, AHF’s float, is themed ‘ A Girl’s World of Adventure,’ and it celebrates and seeks to empower young girls the world over as it poignantly captures the Tournament of Roses’ official 2016 parade theme: ‘Find Your Adventure.’

Riders include five 10 and 11 year-old girls from around the U.S., three of whom are HIV-positive, including a young Floridian. They came to the attention of AHF through ‘Project Kindle,’ a nationwide program for children impacted by HIV/AIDS.

The organization improves the quality of life of thousands for children, young adults, and families facing medical complications through recreational experiences, educational services, and support programs. In one of the many unsung efforts that AHF undertakes, they seek to inspire and empower such young girls.

It is not unusual for AHF to support women’s consciousness, from its billboard advocacy to the music video they created in September, ‘Protect Your Love.’ Promoting safer sex, the video makes a case for a woman being in control of her own sexual health.

In 2015, AHF was involved in a host of programs globally and nationally that tried to raise the consciousness of those at risk for HIV, especially women. Many of these initiatives go under the radar of journalists, but they warrant mention and attention.

In February, for example, AHF quietly launched and expanded its outreach group for Latino and black populations, by establishing its own Black AIDS Crisis Task Force (ABACT). Timed with the release of the academy-nominated film, Selma, AHF conducted a Town Hall meeting in March, keynoted by Reverend Al Sharpton, entitled, ‘AIDS is a Civil Rights Issue.’

AHF also underwrote and supported multiple events which were held in 31 countries and over a dozen U.S. states in February, with a campaign entitled ‘Condoms are Cool,’ to promote International Condom Day.

Promoting safer sex protections is a recurring AHF theme, even if it means creating controversy in the gay community. This past year, the agency also advocated and pushed to fruition a statewide ballot initiative in California that will require condoms in porn. A similar initiative had won approval in L.A. County.

While porn may generate bigger headlines than most stories, AHF also spent 2015 partnering with drug pricing advocates to advance other ballot initiatives both in California and Ohio that would lower the prices government agencies pay for prescription drugs. It rolled out a national ad campaign to preserve discount drug programs and advance drug pricing reforms.

AHF does not hesitate in calling out persons or companies whose profits come at the expense of patients. This year they took on Johnson & Johnson, and more particularly, Gilead CEO John Martin, challenging the cost of Stribild, an important HIV drug used by many patients. AHF pharmacies offer discounted drugs to all their patients, along with mobile vans that provide free HIV testing worldwide.

Meanwhile, AHF’s core services expanded their outreach and venues, opening new offices in Washington, D.C., Seattle, and a wellness center in Chicago, a healthcare center in Houston, and a new pharmacy in Austin, Indiana. It also promoted affiliations with regional locales to enhance everyone’s HIV services.

AHF’s 2015 national advocacy mechanisms obviously generated significant public debate, as seen with its ad campaigns challenging sole and total reliance on PrEP. At the same time, those same ads promote condom usage, and “proven methods of preventing HIV/STDS.”

AHF found support for that proposition last week in an incisive column by the NY Post’s David Kaufman, warning that New York’s plan to push PrEP could ultimately backfire.

“While PrEP works,” Kaufman wrote, “where is the logic in prescribing a medication to prevent a disease that must ultimately be treated with the exact same medication?”

By the end of the year, AHF was saying it had reached “common ground on PrEP,” and that it was “a revolution that did not happen.” AHF supports maximizing the advantages of condom adherence.

AHF utilizes LGBT newspapers across the country to promote their advocacy initiatives, including ours. They are one of our biggest advertisers. But they are also on billboards, buses, and park benches everywhere. They promote their work heavily in the media, but community outreach in the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic only makes common sense. Still, that is just one sound bite within their international efforts. AHF’s role in AIDS care is global, not just national.

As of November, AHF is now providing HIV/AIDS care and services, including antiretroviral treatment, to over half a million people in 36 countries around the globe. For all the hoopla over public initiatives, the agency still reaches hundreds of thousands of persons on multiple continents where HIV, AIDS, and even homosexuality, is still an anathema.

One program in Zambia tested thousands of untreated and potential patients in high schools, producing a more than 3 percent seropositivity rate. The current trend indicates that 40 percent of all new HIV infections occur among young people aged 16 to 24 years of age.

About 90 percent of new HIV infections in Eastern Europe and Central Asia happen in Ukraine or Russia. Challenges to controlling the HIV epidemic include: the lack of services for injecting drug users (IDUs), stigma surrounding men having sex with men (MSM), and limited access to affordable condoms and HIV testing. But both Ukraine and Russia have programs and services in their countries provided by AHF.

The outreach is global, with new or emerging facilities provided by AHF in Asia as well, including Nepal, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia. By initiating testing programs in virgin and unserved countries, the survival rate for people living with HIV increases exponentially.

Earlier this year, a small contingent of local Impulse Group representatives visited one of AHF’s five ‘China Cares’ sites positioned across the country and focusing on providing greater access to antiretroviral therapies. As international advocates, AHF has not hesitated to demand more from the Chinese, either. In 2013, they boldly affiliated with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS to insist China contribute more of a fair share to fight the pandemic.

From its ‘Out of the Closet’ consignment shops in mainstream communities to its outreach and awareness programs in highly infected African countries, AHF is reaching people within the paradigm of care. In places like Swaziland, where the adult HIV prevalence rate was around 26 percent only five years ago, these outreaches are life-saving. Most of the government run clinics has simply surpassed their capacity to provide care.

Consequently, AHF does not operate in a vacuum, but partners with multiple academies to offer outreach projects, from the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation to the Uganda Red Cross. They have participated in Prides from Fort Lauderdale to Peru to Seattle; in National HIV Testing Days in San Francisco; and in Mandela Day in South Africa.

In the same year SFGN was able to feature AHF’s annual South Florida AIDS Walk last April, it provided thousands of Lusaka residents in Zambia, last month, with a free outdoor concert simply in exchange for taking a rapid HIV test.

Said Dr. Penninah Iutung, AHF Africa Bureau Chief. “This kind of free event has never happened in Zambia, it was great opportunity to draw a crowd and make testing conveniently available. We saw a lot of young people having a great time.”

So you may hear about AHF taking on issues like PrEP, condoms in porn, or the explosion of online dating apps being a significant contributor to the rise of HIV cases among teenagers. You may. They will. They do not retreat from controversy. They engage it if that path will help stem the pandemic that is worldwide HIV. Sometimes, you buck the tide to fight the status quo.

Meanwhile, do not lose sight that AHF offers hundreds of thousands of persons a protocol and paradigm of care, compassion, and treatment; services and solace many of these individuals are offered nowhere else. It is not just down the street at ‘Out of the Closet,’ it is in pockets and corners of the globe far away from here. It's a worthy task that should not go unnoticed.


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