By Chris Stone
So many of Frank Jones’ friends have died of HIV infections that he has lost count. But the San Diegan does remember attending 41 memorials in one month in 1987.
“This celebration means so many things to me,” said Jones, who wore a shirt with the printed message: “No Shame About Being HIV+.”
“It’s a way of remembering the past, all of the people that I have lost in my life, which has been a lot,” Jones said. “It reminds me of how far we have come, and how much further we have to go.”
The biggest progress, he said, is that HIV-positive people can now live a normal span with treatment. “That’s amazing to me.”
Jones’ first partner died of AIDS in 1981, and Jones discovered he was HIV-positive in 1985. Medication helps manage his condition.
But the stigma associated with admitting or discussing HIV was the biggest concern of many speakers and attendees.
Dr. Adam Zweig, medical director of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, said that while about 1.2 million people in the United States are HIV-positive, only a third are on medication.
While some people point to poverty, poor education or lack of access to heath care, he said, “Stigma is truly the fuel that accelerates the spread of HIV infection.”
“Stigma drives those at risk and those infected underground and therefore makes them unreachable.”
The rate of HIV transmission continues to rise among gay African-Americans, gay Latinos and women of color,” he said.
Calling the ongoing spread of the disease “inexcusable,” Zweig said there has been failures in the areas of outreach and prevention.
The medical establishment has made “astonishing strides” in treating the infection and developing drugs to prevent the illness.PrEP, short for “pre-exposure prophylaxis,” is a pill taken once a day before coming into contact with HIV. PrEP must be taken for at least seven days to reach optimal levels of protection against HIV, according to medical literature.
PEP, short for “post-exposure prophylaxis,” is a prevention strategy in which HIV-negative people take anti-HIV medications after coming into contact with HIV to reduce their risk of infection. PEP must be started within 72 hours after HIV exposure, according to medical literature.
State Assemblyman-elect Todd Gloria, who spoke at the tree lighting ceremony, said, “We’ve got to get this message out to other quarters of the community that, again, if you believe you are at high-risk … or if you’ve had an exposure, that you can take swift action, you won’t get the disease.”
“This class of drugs that really prevent or help treat the exposure — it is life-changing,” the councilman said. “It isn’t to say we shouldn’t have safe sex. We need to have people tested. It’s not a reason for anyone to become careless.
“But it is to say that we can access drugs that can prevent the spread. And mathematically, you can understand that if we can identify and test the ones who have it, put them into care so they are not spreading it, you get the folks who are at high risk of being exposed.“You get to the point where there are no new HIV transmissions,” Gloria said.
It’s not only the stigma that people who are infected feel, but negative feelings in society that have people concerned.
Alberto Cortes, executive director of Mama’s Kitchen, said he is worried about hateful attacks becoming normalized, “certain unacceptable behaviors can trigger an increased sense of intolerance, of discrimination, of expressions of hate.”
While it’s too early to know how President-elect Donald Trump’s policies will affect funding for HIV care, Cortes said, “with the new administration coming on, there’s a lot of uncertainty as to what that’s going to mean for the provision of services, the care and treatment, and even the community’s response.”
He said San Diegans affected by AIDS “still deal with the stigma, still deal with discrimination, and with issues of access to care.”
“There’s the intersection of AIDS with poverty, with access to health care, with education,” Cortes continued. “ All of these are factors that exacerbate (problems with) the proper care and treatment of people with HIV/AIDS.”
Mama’s Kitchen delivers three free meals a day, seven days a week, to men, women and children living with AIDS or cancer. Mama’s Kitchen, founded in 1990, also provides pantry services and nutrition education to people affected by AIDS.
Participant Jones said Mama’s Kitchen is doing “amazing” work in San Diego.
“There were a lot people who I don’t know what they would have done without Mama’s Kitchen,” Jones said. “We would have lost of lot of people just because they couldn’t fix meals for themselves, shop and take care of themselves.”
The county health agency’s most recent AIDS report, issued in April, said HIV disease has struck 21,389 people locally since 1981.
Of those, 13,200 are still living with either HIV or AIDS. Some 446 people were diagnosed with HIV disease in 2014, the latest year reported. In 1990, the height of the epidemic here, a little over 1,300 were found to have HIV.
For the years 2010-2014, about 71 percent of county residents living with HIV or AIDS were in the city of San Diego, the report said.
“Sister Ida,” a member of the charity group Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, called the tree lighting ceremony uplifting.
It is a gathering where people can come together and wish joy for everyone, Sister Ida said. “We get to celebrate the people who were in our lives who are now sadly gone.”San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer praised the work of Mama’s Kitchen, volunteers, research at UC San Diego and the community fellowship, in which San Diegans have worked together to support each other.
The mayor also spoke of the need to complete a permanent AIDS memorial.
Gloria also talked of work still needing to be done.
“We live in a really exciting time, but that’s actually why this event’s more important than ever,” he said. “While we don’t see the numbers [of infections] that we once did, and hear the terrible stories we once did, there still are people who are living with this disease.
“We know how to protect people. We know how to stop the spread. So events like today are certainly to remember those that we’ve lost, to support those that are living with it. But more importantly to get that message of prevention out to more folks.”
“We can be the generation that ends this epidemic,” Gloria said.
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