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Local Organizations Meeting AIDS Pandemic Head On

L.A.Watts Times, News Report, Chico C. Norwood Posted: Feb 22, 2009

Laquisha began using drugs and having unprotected sex when she was 15. When she turned 16, she was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS.

At that time in my life, I just didnt care, Laquisha said in a testimonial provided to the L.A. Watts Times under an assumed name. In the beginning my boyfriend and I didnt use condoms. I contracted Hepatitis C.

Laquisha soon became homeless, living on the streets, where she did anything to earn money to support her habit.

I did all kinds of things to make money for my drugs, she said. Often times what I was doing wasnt safe.

Almost dead from AIDS, Laquisha finally started turning her life around. Now, five years later, she is clean and sober, and successfully living with AIDS.

I now know that HIV can mutate in somebody who is already infected, and Hepatitis C is contracted through sex or sharing needles, she said. This disease is preventable if more people are made aware of it.

Once considered a gay white mans disease, HIV/AIDS has mushroomed into a full-blown pandemic in the African American community nationwide. According to the latest information from the Kaiser Family Foundation, African Americans account for more HIV and AIDS cases, people estimated to be living with AIDS, and HIV-related deaths than any racial group in the United States.

Laquisha is just one of many success stories from Women Alive in South Los Angeles, one of a number of organizations in the Los Angeles African American community that are meeting the HIV/AIDS epidemic head on by offering education, testing and a variety of services.

Women Alive, at 1566 S. Burnside Avenue, started out as a small newsletter to help women suffering with HIV/AIDS to come out of isolation. It has since grown into a program offering a variety of services to women who are living with HIV and AIDS. Those services include peer-to-peer support, mental health support groups, counseling, treatment, adherence and education. Indeed, a key goal of Women Alive helps is to educate women on how to advocate on their own behalf and navigate the healthcare system and other services, according to Executive Director Carrie Broadus.

Were more than just a social service organization, she said. We utilize a holistic model in that in order to effectively address HIV and AIDS, you must also address the socio-economic (aspect) of the womans life.

We are dealing with the social and cultural challenges of women, particularly as it relates to being primary caregivers, Broadus continued. So, therefore, oftentimes they think of their own health and well-being last.

As part of its commitment to the war against HIV/AIDS, Women Alive, in addition to providing services, has begun looking at HIV from a social approach as opposed to a biomedical approach. The organization uses role-model stories from women who are HIV positive and then puts those stories back into the community.

In The Mean Time Mens Group, a nonprofit organization at 4067 W. Pico Boulevard, focuses on the mental, physical and spiritual health and well-being of black menwith a special focus on black gay men.

The organization, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in December, offers a number of Los Angeles County-funded prevention programs. The group provides testing, HIV education, individual counseling, and links men to a variety of services including case-management, housing and social services.

The group also has a mobile testing unit that provides free rapid testing every Tuesday night. Programs offered include:

The NIA Project (Swahili for purpose), which includes the NIA Prevention Empowerment Series, regular gatherings that enables black men who have sex with men to express themselves in a safe and non threatening environment.

My Life My Style Project, a joint collaboration between ITMT and Aids Project Los Angeles (APLA) designed specifically for gay men 18 to 29 to empower them to make healthy choices.

Gameplan, a new empowerment project designed to assist young black men in developing an action plan for success.

INTMT currently has plans to open a drop-in center in the future.

Jeffrey King is founder and executive director of In the Mean Time. He is a member of the HIV Prevention Planning Committee (PPC), a community-advisory body to the local Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Office of AIDS Programs and Policy (OAPP).

In addition to providing services, advocacy is what his organization is doing in the fight to eradicate HIV/AIDS in the African American community, King said.

Advocacy is a huge part, he said. We represent at (the) state, local and community level where major decisions are being made about our community before we even know about it. There are not many blacks who are represented at the federal, county, local levels. If were not present at those tables, we fall off the list. It matters who is in the rooms when decisions are being made.

The Minority AIDS Project (MAP), at 5149 W. Jefferson Boulevard, is the granddaddy of all HIV organizations in the African American community. It was in the 1980s that Rev. Carl Bean and a small group of supporters stormed meeting of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting to demand HIV funding for South Los Angeles. The demand came the county had allocated large portions of money for the West Hollywood community.

MAP services include health education and prevention, case management, transitional case management, treatment adherence and more.

The Rev. Russell Thornhill, a program manager who has been with the organization for more than 10 years, believes the most important thing the African American community can do to fight the pandemic is for each individual to become aware of their personal HIV status.

Ask yourself first, Do I know my HIV status? And if the answer is no, go get tested, he said. The black community needs to stop saying, Oh, I aint in that population. People need to stop saying its a virus that only affects a certain population.

HIV does not discriminate and does not care if youre a preacher or pauper, he said.

Thornhill, citing county statistics for emphasis, said that in 2007 there were more than 46,000 AIDS cases reported.

There is an estimated 9,000 that have HIV, but are not aware they are infected, he added.

Dr. Wilbur Jordan has been at the forefront of the HIV/AIDS fight since the 1980s, when he diagnosed the first case of heterosexual AIDS in L.A. County.
No one knows more about HIV in the African American community than Dr. Jordan, Thornhill said.

In 1984 Jordan opened the AIDS Clinic at Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital. The AIDS Clinic is now known as the Oasis Clinic.

The Oasis Clinic offers free HIV testing, nutrition counseling, treatment education, womens services, mental health, counseling and case management.
Jordan said most men and women become infected from risky behavior, such as having unprotected sex with men who have sex with other men. He noted that there are new drugs today that add to the arsenal of medicines that make it easier to treat HIV/AIDS patients. He added that those drugs are available to all no matter what racial group.

The problem in the African American community, however, is that blacks tend to get tested late, he said.

So, they cant take advantage (of the drugs) as much, Jordan said.
He also added that because blacks tend to get tested late, they are not living as long as other racial groups that contract the disease.

To push testing in the African American community, Jordan started his own program two years ago. In the latter part of April or early May, and in October, he will continue the program with a personal letter-writing campaign to doctors who have African American patients throughout the county. He will ask them to test their patients for HIV between May 19 and June 19, for Juneteenth, and from November 1 through November 30, leading up to World Aids Day.

The first time around when I wrote 903 letters, we found 104 people 63 women and 41 men. This last time I wrote 4,400 letters, he said. Ninety-eight percent of the black women physicians tested their patients. They were very supportive.

For the past four years the Palms, a neighborhood-based housing and service center focusing on the HIV/AIDS community in South Los Angeles, has implemented two county-funded initiatives: the Palms African American HIV Prevention Faith-Based Initiative, and the African American Community Development Initiative.

Through the Faith-Based Initiative, the Palms provided training to representatives of more than 100 African American churches, getting them to start HIV ministries and to increase the awareness of HIV/AIDS to their congregations.

Some churches went as far as to have a mobile testing unit at their churches, said Cynthia Tucker, the project manager. Others had persons who were HIV positive come to speak to their congregations.

The program was so successful it branched throughout L.A. and has stretched to churches as far as Fresno and San Diego, she said.

Through the Community Development Initiative, Tucker worked with college sororities, fraternities, and other organizations such as the Urban League and NAACP, community groups, and neighborhood block clubs to increase HIV awareness among their constituents.

The training was free and made possible by funding through a contract from the Los Angeles County Office of AIDS Programs and Policy.

Tucker said the Palms hopes to obtain a new contract with the county to continue both programs for three more years.

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