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Conference 'shines' light on potential end of HIV tunnel
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Jason Carson Wilson
2014-11-11

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Eradicating HIV isn't an illusion. That was the focus of University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration's fourth annual SHINE Conference, "One Step Closer To HIV Elimination: Voices From the Next Generation of Advocates, Practitioners and Researchers."

Those living with and fighting to stop HIV listened to and learned from each other in Woodlawn Friday. Strides in prevention and treatment were among the most prominent topics. Iman Little of Chicago Center for HIV Elimination stressed PrEP's efficacy.

"We, as practitioners, have to be more willing to push PrEP," Little said.

PrEP is short for pre-exposure prophylaxis. It allows those who are HIV negative to take a pill daily, in order to prevent getting infected. Little, citing Project CHAT National HIV Behavioral Surveillance results, said Black males—ages 13 to 24—account for 83 percent of new infections.

More than 540 interviews were conducted. Little noted that they earned less than $20,000 and were faced with various other challenges, including high unemployment, high police presence and low education.

Less than thorough health care, according to Little, is also a problem. Unlike women, doctors weren't offering men HIV tests. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control ( CDC )'s guidelines recommend two HIV tests per year.

Little's colleague, PS-PrEP project coordinator, Kathryn Berringer said PrEP could be "kind of a new game in town."

Michael Newcomb, Northwestern University medical social sciences assistant professor, said 68 percent of new infections result from male-to-male contact. Newcomb also noted the increase of infections among Black males, ages 13 to 24. He also said 51 percent of those HIV-positive are unaware of their status.

Being in a relationship doesn't necessarily protect you, Newcomb said, adding many new infections occur within serious relationships. Not using condoms had more to do with expressing trust than with intimacy, he said.

Researcher Elizabeth Bowen, a 2004 School Social Service Administration graduate, delved into the connection between homelessness and HIV infection. Bowen managed supportive housing for homelessness HIV patients.

She said single-resident occupancy ( SRO ) units can help lower the risk of HIV infection among the homeless. Bowen said SROs are considered "housing of last resort" as well as urban blight.

The latter view of SROs has inspired the closure and redevelopment of several SRO building, prompting a response from community organizers like ONE Northside. Bowen conducted survey in Uptown after identifying 10 buildings.

She partnered with the Community Outreach Intervention Projects to conduct more than 160 surveys. Nearly 80 percent of respondents were male and 63 percent were Black, while 28 percent were white. The remaining 17 percent were Hispanic or of another demographic. They ranged from 21 to 76 years old.

"I think we do need to think about preserving SROs," Bowen said.

According to survey results, SRO residents, who had been homeless within the last year, engaged in risky behavior. Lance Keene, a Black School of Social Service Administration doctoral candidate, examined how some Black men avoid disclosing their sexual orientation.

"Some people say Black men disclose less than White men," Keene said. "I'm really interested in intersectionalities."

Reasons for remaining closeted, including homophobia and religiosity, were obvious. However, citing the Social Justice Sexuality Survey, Keene explored the levels of disclosure. They include family, friends, work, religious community, neighbors and online.

Respondents used labels, including gay, SGL and macho. However, Keene said, most identified as gay. Black men disclosed the most to friends. Keene also noted, ironically, that religiosity was positively related to disclosure.

AIDS activist Rae Lewis-Thornton, who lives with AIDS, served as the conference's special guest. Keith Green, a School of Social Service Administration doctoral candidate, conducted a conversation with Lewis-Thornton.

She offered some insights before heading on stage. Lewis-Thornton, a former community organizer, is the first Black woman with AIDS to tell her story in a national magazine. Lewis-Thornton graced a 1994 issue of Essence magazine. A 20th-anniversary issue is on newsstands now.

"I'm credited with giving Black women a new face of AIDS," she said. "My life really became an example to Black women."

Lewis-Thornton refused to play the "down low" blame game. Infection rates, she said, are a complicated issue for Black women. Lewis-Thornton said it all boils down to choices.

"We make choices about who to trust," she said. "Sometimes, that trust is misguided. Let's not beat up and blame Black men. Women have to take control of their bodies and lives."


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