At AIDS Walk Delaware 2022, organizers raise awareness and offer monkeypox vaccines

People participate in   the 2022 AIDS Walk in Wilmington, Delaware on Sept. 17, 2022. (Johnny Perez-Gonzalez/WHYY)

People participate in the 2022 AIDS Walk in Wilmington, Delaware on Sept. 17, 2022. (Johnny Perez-Gonzalez/WHYY)

There were 3,724 people in Delaware living with HIV as of March 2022, according to the most recent data from the Delaware Division of Public Health. On Saturday, the state’s HIV Consortium and AIDS Delaware jointly raised funding and awareness for the disease during the 36th annual Delaware AIDS Walk in Wilmington and Rehoboth Beach.

This year, organizers also collaborated with the Delaware Division of Public Health and Ivira Pharmacy to provide both flu and monkeypox vaccines during the event.

The AIDS Walk is the oldest and biggest HIV/AIDS awareness and fundraising event in the state, which typically draws more than 600 participants and volunteers. All donations will support organizations like the Ministry of Caring, Latin American Community Center, CAMP Rehoboth, and others that offer free HIV testing, case management services, mental health counseling, education and prevention programs, as well as housing services for HIV patients.

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The goal of the event is to reduce stigma and support HIV-informed community health for all Delawareans, said John Beckley, director of development and marketing at AIDs Delaware. “Step up, Step out: Remove Stigma, Eliminate HIV, Improve Lives” was this year’s theme.

“Many are struggling with isolation, depression, and anxiety. This year, we walk with those folks in our hearts,” Beckley said. “Our case managers have confirmed that COVID-19 has created additional burdens for people living with HIV, people whose immune systems can be especially vulnerable.”

In addition to COVID-19, the global monkeypox outbreak has had a disproportionate impact on people with weakened immune systems, especially with those living with HIV: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reviewed 2,000 monkeypox cases in the first two months of the U.S. outbreak and found that nearly 40% were in people with HIV.

There have been 35 confirmed cases of monkeypox in Delaware since this year’s outbreak began, and cases nationwide seem to be on the decline. Still, the disease is overwhelmingly affecting men who have sex with men.

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That’s why, Beckley said, the Delaware AIDS Walk organizers decided to partner with the state’s Division of Public Health and Ivira Pharmacy to offer monkeypox — and flu — vaccines during this year’s event.

“[Monkeypox] is greatly affecting gay men or men who have sex with men,” Beckley said. “The same way that we were here at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and the HIV virus, we should step up and see what we can do for the community by providing the vaccine at our walk.”

Spencer Love, 23, from Wilmington, walked Saturday morning in his city to support his community, family, and friends that have been impacted by the stigma of HIV/AIDS.

“I think it’s everyone’s responsibility in my generation to show up and support people who’ve departed, people who are still battling, and people who are still affected by the stigma,” Love said.

He added that he is thankful to scientific breakthroughs, since HIV is no longer a death sentence.

Similar to other walkers at the Wilmington Walk, Carissa Brubaker has been committed to this cause for a long time. She said that HIV/AIDS has not received the attention it deserves and that one day she hopes to do research in field.

Carissa Brubaker joined the AIDS Walk and got her Monkeypox vaccine at the event as well. (Johnny Perez-Gonzalez/WHYY)

Brubaker, a research coordinator and graduate student studying public health, said she was glad to see that there were monkeypox and flu vaccines offered at the event.

“I’m very excited. I was really excited at the convenience of it all,” Brubaker said. “I was literally looking last night about when to get the flu shot. And I love that they could do the monkey pox vaccine, as well.”

Gerardo Pacheco, who attended the Wilmington Walk from Bear, Del., was also appreciative that both vaccines were free and available.

“Coming to an event like this and being able to get, you know, all this stuff right away, right in there, it’s kind of nice,” Pacheco said.

In 2019, newly diagnosed HIV infections in the U.S. were highest among people ages 25 to 29, according to the CDC. Berkley said that in addition to raising funds for HIV prevention and treatment services, he hopes the Delaware AIDS Walk will help raise awareness for younger people, who may not be as educated about prevention and management for the disease as previous generations.

“HIV is still around, and it is still something that we need to be concerned about,” Berkley said.

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