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'One Voice': Inland Agencies Join Forces to Fight HIV/AIDS

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Focus on "Zero AIDS related deaths" signals a historic shift in regional cooperation

By Chris Levister

Picture this: World AIDS Day, December 1, 2012, HIV/AIDS activists, public health officials from the counties of Riverside and San Bernardino, HIV/AIDS regional service providers, local politicians, educators, students, HIV/AIDS sufferers, their partners and others gathered on the campus of Cal State University San Bernardino using their feet to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

It was a picture worth a thousand words: Under the banner ‘One Voice Collaborative’, participants in the nation’s public health goal of “Getting to Zero Cases in America” - walked 10,000 steps to raise money for HIV/AIDS agencies serving the Inland Empire. They shared stories, tears, got tested and honored the legacy of long time HIV/AIDS activist Patricia ‘Pat’ Green-Lee who died of a heart attack February 19, 2012.

AIDS activists and organizers, Nosente Uhuti and Kismet Evans advisors to the Inland Empire HIV Planning Council (IEHPC) called the event a historic shift in a region better known for its often fragmented grassroots approach to fighting the crisis than the multi prong public-private collaboration essential to preventing the spread of AIDS.

On the surface what seemed like a spit and polish event honoring World AIDS Day was in fact a rarely seen show of regional cooperation - the result of a hard fought campaign aimed at mobilizing Inland resources through one voice said Uhuti, a foot soldier in the AIDS battle since 1989.

“Preventing the spread of this disease, fighting the stigma associated with infection, and ending this pandemic once and for all cannot be relegated to a few struggling agencies working independently or any one health department,” Uhuti said. “The One Voice annual event and year-round partnership lifts every voice.”

That’s a powerful statement considering on July 19, 2010, Uhuti, Pat Green and people living with AIDS led a protest before the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors in which demonstrators decried the county’s “disastrous public health leadership and stunning lack of government oversight”.

The activists demanded then Chairman Josie Gonzales, supervisors and public health officials fix the region’s “disgraceful” record of inaction. The protest attracted widespread attention.

“Pat Green-Lee was a tireless and passionate voice who fought for change in the HIV/AIDS community,” said Evans. “Josie Gonzales heard the battle cry and got to work. Behind the scenes and in the forefront she labored tirelessly bridging relationships between government, HIV/AIDS grassroots agencies and community outreach groups. She pushed education, prevention and greater access to treatment for all.”

World AIDS Day 2012, Gonzales was awarded the first annual “One Voice - Pat Green-Lee Memorial Award”.

“One Voice Collaborative is not just some symbolic effort,” said Evans, Core Evaluating Officer/CEO Inland Empire Veterans Stand Down which provides confidential help for local veterans and their families.

The face of HIV/AIDS is changing says Evans. Today, over 1.6 million men and women have served the U.S. in either Iraq or Afghanistan, with many coming home to face a multitude of challenges. Among them: Homelessness/Mental Illness/Alcohol/Drug Addiction/ Suicides, and HIV/AIDS.

“Perhaps more unique to this generation of veterans has been the threat of the HIV virus and AIDS. Partly related to the increase in drug addiction, HIV as a by-product of sharing dirty needles or engaging in risky sex is on the rise among today’s veterans,” she said.

Some studies have estimated that homeless or veterans with drug addictions can be 2 to 6 times more likely to contract HIV. The result of stigma, Evans says many of these men and women go unaware of their status or suffer in silence.

Currently the VA system is the nation’s largest provider of HIV-related care, with reports showing that the VA treats more than 23,000 HIV-positive veterans.

Uhuti who served as southern vice chair for the California African American HIV/AIDS Coalition and vice chairperson of Nubian AIDS Coalition says if you are in the age group 50+, you might be thinking your risk of catching HIV/AIDS is relatively low. Well, think again.

“The figures are staggering.” In fact according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the 50-and-over age group is the “fastest growing segment of the HIV-positive population … with one in seven new diagnoses of HIV or AIDS being in a person over 50.

An estimated 56,300 Americans are newly infected with HIV (the Human Immunodeficiency Virus that causes AIDS) each year, and 1.1 million Americans live with HIV/AIDS. It is estimated that 21 percent of HIV-positive people don’t know they are infected and many did not know they were at risk of contracting the virus.

People of color continue to be at a disproportionate risk for HIV infection. Nearly 45 percent of all new infections were among African Americans, who account for only 12 percent of the U.S. population. Hispanic Americans account for 17 percent of new infections, but only comprise about 16 percent of the U.S. population.

HIV/AIDS now ranks as the third leading cause of death for African Americans and fifth leading cause of death for male and female Hispanic Americans, ages 35 to 44. According to the County of San Bernardino Department of Public Health 2010 Morbidity Report, African Americans and Hispanic Americans account for just over half of the County’s population and outnumber any other ethnic group impacted by HIV.

Together, they account for approximately six out of 10 of those reported to be living with HIV/AIDS.

“It is important to remember that HIV is transmitted primarily by unprotected sexual behavior and sharing needles for drug use,” said Dr. Maxwell Ohikhuare, Health Officer, San Bernardino County Department of Public Health. “Combining our two county resources, educating and testing are the keys to HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, and care.”

Summing up the One Voice Collaborative – Uhuti says “A few people working independently can move stones. A collaborative can move mountains. Together we can get to Zero!”

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