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Black HIV/AIDS event addresses progress, challenges
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond

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Ahead of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day ( Feb. 7 ), members of the West Side HIV/AIDS Resource Provider Council ( WHARP ), U.S. Congressman. Danny K. Davis ( IL- 07 ) Sen. Jacqueline Y. Collins ( IL-16 ) and Rep. LaShawn K. Ford ( IL-08 ) joined representatives from the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System, The Illinois Department of Public Health, AIDS Foundation of Chicago, The Chicago Gay Black Men's Caucus, The Black Treatment Advocate Network ( BTAN ) and the Center on Halsted ( The Center ) in a Feb. 5 press conference at Chicago's Miles Square Health Clinic.

The image of more than 15 noted political and nonprofit leaders in the battle against HIV/AIDS surrounding the podium was as much about demonstrating solidarity in the face of challenges such as an alarmingly disproportionate growth of the disease in the Black community ( representing half of new cases ) along with income-loss fallout from Springfield's ongoing budget impasse as it was to make announcements such as legislation renewing the Red Ribbon Cash Lottery Ticket while sending out a call to action urging all citizens to take an HIV/AIDS test.

"The need to celebrate the success of this work and the need to push for continued progress go hand in hand," Collins said before addressing the renewal of ( SB 2397 )—the Red Ribbon Cash Lottery Ticket for which she served as the Senate's chief sponsor.

The genesis of the Red Ribbon legislation occurred in 2007 when Collins was approached with the initiative crafted by Chicago activists Benny Montgomery Jr. and Michael O' Connor following a Gay Black Men's Caucus workshop called "Gay, Black and Dying." It resulted in both the idea and the foresight to directly generate money in order to combat HIV/AIDS rather than rely upon a dangerously fickle legislature.

Collins noted that, since 2008, the Red Ribbon Cash Lottery Ticket has generated $6.4 million for Quality of Life grants, with 100 percent of its proceeds distributed to organizations statewide providing education, testing, counseling and care for HIV/AIDs affected and at-risk individuals.

"Keeping these resources flowing has not been easy given the circumstances that we now encounter in this state," Collins added. "I have filed legislation to extend this program for an additional eight years and extend it to 2025. The fight against HIV/AIDS is a long-running battle we have waged for decades."

Ford and other presenters discussed the challenges for the African-American community in that battle.

One in 16 Black men and one in 32 Black women will be diagnosed with HIV. Black individuals represent approximately 15 percent of the U.S. population but accounted for an estimated 47 percent of new HIV infections in 2012. Youth are the largest population that the disease affects.

The need for routine opt-out HIV screening to be implemented at all medical centers in Illinois for individuals aged 13-64 as well as the removal of the stigma associated with the disease has never been more essential.

To that end, Ford noted the 2015 unanimous passage and signing into law of HB 1004—The African-American HIV/AIDS Response Act.

"Early diagnosis saves lives and prevents new infections," he said. "With the new law, we can diagnose people early by ensuring that everyone gets tested and is linked to treatment. Now the Illinois HIV testing law falls in line with CDC [Centers for Disease Control] recommendations, we can reduce the barriers and increase access to testing and linkage to care."

Described as a "prizefighter against HIV", Davis celebrated the work of the country's community health centers like Miles Square "providing quality health care for more than 28 million low and moderate income individuals all over America."

"Being healthy is more than the absence of disease," he said. "The obligation that each one of us has, if we live in a free and democratic society, is to try and make sure that society addresses the issues of the day."

Quoting poet Dante Alighieri, he added, "the hottest places in hell were reserved for those individuals who didn't take a position on the great issues of their time."

The consequences from those politicians in Springfield who refuse to address the state's budget were alarmingly illustrated by The Center's Director, HIV/AIDS/STD Hotline and HIV Testing & Prevention Jill Dispenza who said that loss of manpower for the organization's HIV programming has already had a calamitous result in the numbers of youth they are able to test and link to care.

"[There are] 12 [youth] potentially out there that we had tested last year that are transmitting, unknowingly, HIV to their social networks, their health is going down," she asserted. "We can't grab that back from these young people. This budget is hurting individual human beings who we love."

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