Delivering a message of hope for thousands with HIV

By Emile DeWeaver

One of the country’s major problems is that 161,000 people in the United States have HIV but don’t know it, Andrew Reynolds told a gathering at San Quentin’s World AIDS Day on Dec. 1

An expert in HIV prevention, Reynolds brought a message of hope: Although there are 50,000 new infections a year in the U.S., current medical technology can reduce the rate of infection to zero new cases a year.

Relatively few incarcerated men heard this message. The turnout for the last two World AIDS Day events in San Quentin has barely filled three of the 16 rows in the Protestant Chapel.

One reason might be that a lot of stigma surrounds HIV in prison.

“People in prison shy away from the conversation,” Donald “EL ‘Bey” Cavness said. “But today you don’t have to be afraid because we know (how to treat the disease).”

Those who weren’t afraid gathered to show their solidarity with the millions of people gathering in various places around the world to promote HIV prevention.

Spoken-word artist Bri Blu

“I had a sister-in-law that passed away from AIDS,” Ronald Sallee said. Sallee, an incarcerated supporter, agreed that a lot of people don’t want to talk about HIV, but he wanted to learn to teach his grandchildren. “People still think ‘It won’t happen to me,’ but it happened to my sister-in-law.”

The message on World AIDS Day was that with the current treatments available, death from AIDS doesn’t have to happen to anyone.

Today, treatment for HIV is a lot simpler, more accessible, much more effective and entails fewer side effects than treatment did in the 1980s. Current treatment can reduce an HIV-positive person’s viral count virtually to zero.

“Treatment used to mean a lot of pills and side effects,” said Ingrid Nelson, a guest speaker and HIV specialist in San Quentin’s clinic. She talked about how treatment has become as simple as one pill a day. “I’ve seen people (who get treatment) reach undetectable levels in four weeks.”

If you get treatment, “you can date and have sex, get married and have children without any problems,” Nelson continued.

Reynolds explained why HIV-positive people are living regular lives with an average life expectancy of 73 years.

“Knowing your status and engaging in care and treatment early keeps you alive longer and lowers the risk of transmission,” Reynolds said. “A person whose viral load is undetectable has a 96 percent lower chance of transmitting the virus. Introduce PrEP and other prevention methods like condoms and that percentage lowers to essentially zero.”

PrEP stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis. It is available through the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. PrEP prevents HIV as birth control pills prevent pregnancy. Also available is a pill called PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis). It works like the morning-after pill in that it prevents infection after exposure to HIV.

Despite HIV being as manageable as diabetes, Nelson said there’s a big gap between people who are HIV-positive and people who are getting treatment. She said the vast majority of the 95 HIV-positive people at San Quentin are on medication, and their viral counts are undetectable. One reason some do not get tested or seek treatment is the same reason turnout for World AIDS Day in San Quentin was so low: fear of stigma.

“We have to keep away from the shame, stigma and people-judging,” Nelson said. “Those who have support systems tend to stay healthier because they have people to help them stay on their regimen.”

Nelson then explained that people who struggle to get and sustain treatment often do so because they feel like outcasts.

Keynote speaker Alfredo De Labra talked about his struggle with  the stigma. “I wanted to keep it a secret. I received messages from my community that it was my fault. I felt very dirty.”

De Labra is a Health Advocacy Coordinator for Positive Force, a program of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. He teaches people strategies for dealing with stigma disclosure and for keeping hope.

“Finally, I gathered strength to tell a friend,” De Labra said. “Took three more years to tell my father and family. Telling people has been pivotal for me to keep up with medical (treatment), to make life-affirming decisions. It gave me the strength to quit drugs.”

De Labra continued Reynolds’ message of hope. The message continued with performances by George “Mesro” Coles and Michael Adams.

Award-winning spoken-word artist Bri Blu earned a standing ovation. She celebrated the greatness of a struggling people and spoke about moving from a place where we discount ourselves to a place where we accept ourselves and others.

The event culminated with David Jassy and Joshua “J.B.” Burton, featuring Bri Blu perfoming “Champion.” Three rows of people seemed to fill the chapel with their waving side-to-side hands, Jassy sang and Burton delivered lyrics about regret for the past, hope for the future and determination in the present.

Another standing ovation followed “Champion.”

People with questions about HIV or Hep C are encouraged to contact:

Project Inform

273 Ninth St.

San Francisco, CA 94103

Attn: Andrew Reynolds

–Marcus Henderson

contributed to this story

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