DCA Commemorates World AIDS Day 2019

The Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) hosted a World AIDS Day luncheon on December 5 to express solidarity with people living with HIV/AIDS and to educate employees about how the disease has impacted Georgia. Guest speaker Ed Duda, Gilead Sciences Executive Community Liaison, shared advancements in HIV treatment and led a discussion with staff to determine how they can help fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The 2019 World AIDS Day theme is “Ending the Epidemic: Community by Community.” DCA has demonstrated its goal to support the community through the Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA), a federally funded HUD program that offers a variety of housing solutions and support services for low-income persons living with HIV/AIDS. By funding 12 regional Project Sponsors, and through collaboration with local health departments, DCA helps ensure people in need to maintain HIV medical care. 2019 is the first year in which DCA was able to provide 100% coverage of HOPWA services in 125 counties outside of 29 Metro Atlanta counties covered by City of Atlanta jurisdiction and 5 counties by City of Augusta-Richmond jurisdiction.

Deputy Commissioner of Housing Tonya Cureton Curry opened the event by speaking about the purpose of World AIDS Day which, according to the National AIDS Trust (NAT), is “an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, to show support for people living with HIV, and to commemorate those who have died from an AIDS-related illness.” With the mission in mind, Curry said, “DCA is committed to making strides by increasing awareness and decreasing stigmas, and assisting people living in poverty with [HIV/AIDS].”

Georgia ranked first in the rate of HIV diagnosis among adults and adolescents. According to the Georgia Department of Public Health, by the end of 2017, 58,808 people in Georgia were living with HIV, 2,698 were new diagnoses with 1,152 (43%) diagnosed with stage 3 (AIDS). HIV infection is disproportionately higher in male (75%), Black (72%), Men Having Sex with Men, or MSM (82% among male), and in the age group of 20-29 years (38%).  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are approximately 1.1 million people in the United States living with HIV.

This year, DCA’s Special Needs Housing Coordinator Dr. Harvinder K. Makkar organized the 2019 World AIDS Day luncheon, marking her 25th year of helping individuals with HIV/AIDS. She began her outreach during a time when doctors did not test for HIV on a routine basis. Doctors were only treating patients for their symptoms, such as having a fever. Despite medical advancements, she said, “People are not seeking assistance because of social stigma.”

She explained that the risk of HIV is a more prominent issue in the South because of social inequity, lack of resources, and fear of positive test results. For this reason, Dr. Makkar considers HIV to be a social disease. Dr. Makkar also introduced the topic of perinatal HIV care, which is a medical agent used to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission. She explained that the likelihood of preventing mother-to-child HIV transmission is very high, therefore babies should not be born with the infection.

Duda spoke on the overlap between DCA’s mission to build strong vibrant communities and Gilead Sciences’ mission, which is “to discover, develop, and commercialize innovative therapeutics in the areas of unmet medical needs that improve patient care.” According to its website, Gilead Sciences aims “to transform and simplify care for people with life-threatening diseases around the world.” Duda says Gilead’s efforts are demonstrated through their accomplishments, such as developing a cure for Hepatitis C and by working to cure Ebola. 

Gilead Sciences’ commitment of $200 million is helping assist Southern states with ending the HIV/Aids Epidemic, Duda said. Through a government partnership, the biotechnology organization will help provide free PrEp, an HIV prevention strategy, to people without insurance.

Dr. Makkar added, “With treatment, the life expectancy increases for people living in Georgia with HIV.” In addition to receiving free resources and medical service, people can also learn life skills. For more information about PrEP services, locate a provider by visiting preplocator.org.  

According to the CDC, Georgia remains near the top as No. 3 in HIV risk in the United States. This data gave Duda reason to estimate that one out of 52 Atlantans, or more, will have HIV in their lifetime. He spoke on the necessity for people to begin speaking with individuals affected by the infection and to start sharing resources.

With Dr. Makkar's shared notion of stigma, Duda says, “We have to stop judging on the front end. We have to start looking at the heart of the matter and break down the barrier."

Duda asked DCA staff to discuss ways to better advocate and fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Attendees agreed on the importance of educating people, from a young age, to better equip them with the tools, resources, and knowledge concerning sexual activity and the epidemic.