Black residents of the nation’s capital will soon have an entire network of resources catering specifically to the needs of African Americans with HIV and AIDS.
With a focus on education initiatives led by the Community Education Group (CEG), the Black AIDS Institute has partnered with Merck, a leading U.S. drug maker, to create the Black Treatment Advocates Network (BTAN).
The network is already available in 13 cities nationwide, and will use trained advocates in Washington, D.C. communities to spread information about health resources for those already living HIV or AIDS.
“Treatment is prevention,” said Phill Wilson, president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute. “When we are successful in getting people on treatment we can reduce the level of HIV in our community, making it safer for everyone.”
“Today, the problem with HIV in Black communities is as much a utilization problem as it is an access problem.”
Statistics from the Atlanta-based headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show 1.1 million people coping with HIV in the country.
Of those living with the condition, nearly one out of every five, or 18 percent are oblivious to the fact that they are carrying the virus.
In the Washington, D.C. area, 4.3 percent of the African American population tested positive for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. That information was released in May 2012 and contained data released compiled between 2006 and 2010 by the D.C. Department of Health (DOH).
Wilson said Washington, D.C. was chosen as the next city to receive help from BTAN because roughly 75 percent of all HIV cases in Washington, D.C. stem from the Black community- even though only 46 percent of the District is African American.
Even more frustrating for Wilson is the fact that even though they qualify for help through the Affordable Care Act, less than 25 percent of African Americans living with HIV have appropriate HIV care with viral suppression- a key part in keeping the virus undetectable in the blood.
“We know that if we can get to viral suppression- meaning, that there is so little in your system that current technology cannot identify it- we know that we can reduce the ability to transmit HIV by 96 percent.”
Patients without health insurance also qualify for Merck programs that offset antiretroviral therapy costs. Chirfi Guindo, vice president and general manager of Merck, said that roughly 1,000 patients are already taking advantage of initiatives to receive medications free of charge.
“Part of the challenge is access to information. What we are finding out is that particularly in the Black community there is a lack of information,” Guindo said.
“There are many facilities out there that people are not taking advantage of. That’s where our collaboration with the Black AIDS Institute comes in – educating and empowering the community so they know what’s available to them and become advocates for themselves.”
Alvin Jeffrey Hall, 45, is familiar with the struggle to get African Americans to actively engage treatment opportunities.
“I currently know people who don’t take advantage of the resources out there- people are avoiding it because they are scared,” said the Cheverly, Md. resident.
And he knows first-hand how programs like BTAN can save lives.
In 1987 he found himself among the thousands of Black men caught up in an AIDS epidemic ravaging the country.
He was taking 49 pills a day to keep him alive.
Hall was fortunate in that he had an aunt working for an HIV and AIDS advocacy organization at the time of his diagnosis. She promptly connected him with programs that took care of his medication costs.
“A lot of times I got sick from the medicine alone,” he said of the initial treatments for HIV that have become more streamlined. “I’ve tailored down to about five a day.”
Hall is now an office manager for Metro TeenAIDS, a community organization working with youths to put a stop to HIV infections and AIDS cases. He encourages those in need to seek out resources and more importantly- use them.
“It’s important to stay educated and rooted in education,” he said. “You need regular treatment- that’s important.”
Training for the community advocates have already begun, according to Wilson, and another training session will take place in the coming weeks. The advocates will then go back to their respective communities, choose a specific project by the end of the year, and begin to work towards their goal.