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Battling Chicago's HIV/AIDS disparities
by David Thill
2017-02-13

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Panel discussion focuses on the challenges in raising awareness among minority communities who already face a multitude of obstacles meeting basic needs.

While non-Hispanic Black individuals made up 14.2 percent of Illinois' population in 2013, they composed 48 percent of new HIV diagnoses, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Disparities such as this—and infection rates that are significantly higher among non-Hispanic Blacks than non-Hispanic whites—were the impetus for a recent panel discussion "HIV/AIDS & Race," held at the Alphawood Gallery on Feb. 8, the day after National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.

The discussion was part of programming for the Art AIDS America Chicago exhibition on display at the Alphawood through April 2.

Black people "are more than 50 percent of the people living with HIV" in Chicago, said Sista Yaa Simpson, community epidemiologist for the Chicago nonprofit TACTS ( The Association of Clinical Trials Services ), and an HIV epidemiologist in the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Joining Simpson were four other members of Chicago's LGBT and public-health communities: Erik Glenn, executive director of Chicago Black Gay Men's Caucus; David Ernesto Munar, president and chief executive officer at Howard Brown Health; Hadeis Safi, a health educator at Center on Halsted; and Chay Yew, artistic director of Victory Gardens Theater. The panel was moderated by Lora Branch, associate director in government affairs at Gilead Sciences, Inc. ( developer of HIV medications such as Truvada ), and featured a performance by local performance artist Po'Chop.

Glenn described his work with Chicago Black Gay Men's Caucus as "activating communities."

"There's a type of advocacy that a person can only bring for themselves," Glenn said. "I don't subscribe to the sense that there are voiceless people. ... It's rather amplifying the voices that are already there."

Obtaining funding for healthcare agencies is important, he said, as is ensuring that decision-making organizational leaders are members of the communities they are trying to help—in this case, people of color from communities impacted by HIV/AIDS. Without institutional commitment to that sort of representation, he said, "We end up with agencies coming in to communities to do good work" to help people who they feel are "doing so badly by themselves."

Munar said that Howard Brown has found success by offering comprehensive and geographically accessible care: "If we're trying to reach LGBTQ people, we need to be closer to where people live and work." ( Within the past year, the organization has opened clinics in Chicago's Rogers Park and Englewood neighborhoods. )

Even more important is having a caring, culturally competent, and respectful staff, said Munar. Patients sometimes have the impression that medicine does more harm than good, or carry negative beliefs about people with HIV or LGBT people, which he said can create obstacles to care. Before focusing on prescriptions, he said, agencies must guide patients through the process of dismantling certain harmful myths that prevent them from accepting that care.

The conversation touched several times on stigma facing people with HIV, which Munar said he believes is, in some ways, deeper now than it used to be. There's a sense that when a person today tests positive, they "should have known better," he said.

Simpson said that science is her "saving grace." Her organization, TACTS, aims to provide prevention-intervention education and awareness for people living with or impacted by HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, particularly the disproportionately affected Black community. TACTS's motto is "Bringing Science to the People."

Panel members agreed that a major challenge going forward is how to persuade people to care about that science when they already feel overlooked by societal institutions in other, more fundamental ways. As one audience member asked, "What is the buy-in" for someone to take HIV medication when they can't obtain housing?


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