Federal money will expand HIV education resources to gay and bisexual men of color

     Philadelphia FIGHT's Youth Health Empowerment Project participants (Photo by Holly Clark)

    Philadelphia FIGHT's Youth Health Empowerment Project participants (Photo by Holly Clark)

    Philadelphia is getting $1.7 million to expand its HIV prevention work.

    The federal grant is earmarked for education and care programs for gay and bisexual men of color. Officials at the city health department aren’t ready to say specifically how Philadelphia will use the grant, but community groups around the city have suggestions.

    In West Kensington at the social justice and HIV/AIDS education group GALAEI, executive director Elicia Gonzalez says her team is particularly good at outreach through social media.

    “But not as good at hitting the streets like we did in the start of the epidemic, and I think that kind of return to HIV prevention from the early days is what’s needed,” she said.

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    Gonzalez would love city help to re-launch a traditional awareness campaign.

    She says some men avoid HIV testing because they worry friends or family will reject them. But when GALAEI surveyed Latino neighbors, there were lots of supportive reactions.

    “We need to get that message out there because there is still the same old rhetoric and same old myth that Latinos are homophobic, or that there’s a lot of HIV stigma in the Latino community, but we are not actually finding that out to be true,” Gonzalez said.

    At the health services and advocacy group Philadelphia Fight, Shani Akilah works with the Youth Health Empowerment Project targeting young people age 13 to 29.

    The I AM program is for “male assigned folks who have sex with male assigned folks,” Akilah said.

    “Male assigned” is a term that includes transwomen dubbed as male at birth.

    Akilah says HIV testing and wellness work needs to travel beyond downtown Philadelphia.

    “So when folks are outside of Center City, for example, in South Philly, West Philly, Southwest Philly, North Philly, a lot of times there exists barriers to access. Bringing instead the programming to communities as opposed to just waiting for them to come to us, is one way to take that barrier off the table,” Akilah said.

    Others wish Philadelphia’s health department would use its new funding to educate more doctors about the HIV-prevention medication, PrEP (pronounced “prep”).  Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis therapy is a daily pill that has been around since 2012.  Just a few sites around Philadelphia offer the medicine.

    People hear that they should “go talk to your doctor” about PrEP, Gonzalez said, “but a lot of doctors aren’t prescribing it, a lot of doctors are fearful.”

    Philadelphia Fight, St. Christopher’s Hospital and the Mazzoni Center have PrEP programs. GALAEI plans to partner soon with Drexel Medicine.

    Advocates are excited about the new federal dollars flowing to Philadelphia, but Gonzalez and Akilah guess that the grant will come with traditional Centers for Disease Control and Prevention restrictions on how the money is used.

    “In a perfect world, HIV prevention would be comprehensive,” Gonzalez said.

    True help goes beyond testing and handing out condoms, Akilah said.

    “Linking people to jobs and housing and educational advancement opportunities is important to fighting HIV,” Gonzalez said.

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