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On World AIDS Day, advocates say work against stigma continues

December 1 is World AIDS Day - a day to unite with others around the world to prevent HIV, support people with HIV, and remember those who have lost their lives to an HIV-related illness.
December 1 is World AIDS Day - a day to unite with others around the world to prevent HIV, support people with HIV, and remember those who have lost their lives to an HIV-related illness.

Today is World AIDS Day with events and activities taking place across the globe and in upstate New York.

AIDS has not gone away. There is still no vaccine and no cure for HIV, which exists in nearly every community.

Kim Atkins is the executive director for the Alliance for Positive Health, formerly known as the AIDS Council of Northeastern New York.

He says the COVID pandemic upended the lives of AIDS patients and HIV survivors.

“The early days of COVID reminded me of the early days of HIV in the sense that we didn't know anything," Atkins said. "And, you know, obviously, when you don't know anything, you jump to the worst conclusions. But for somebody who's living with HIV, to feel that you might be at risk for infection so easily by an airborne disease that could really make you sick, terrible. So you ended up isolating yourself, just like everybody else, kind of isolated, who was afraid for their own safety, but terrible situation for them, they put us in a situation where we asked staff to go out to people, to visit them in their homes, to meet them in places they felt safe, obviously, wearing masks, and delivering food and other things that we could to support them. Hardest thing through that is isolation. We all suffered through isolation, but for somebody with HIV, who's already lived through the stigma, and the marginalization of, you know, having HIV and what that, you know, people when they know that, how they treat those individuals, it really isolates them further.“

Atkins says one consequence of COVID is that some long-time survivors of HIV had foregone their medications, leaving them no longer virally suppressed, putting themselves and others at increased risk.

“We have to educate them about what we call MPV, or Mpox," said Atkins. "Some call monkey pox, but we refer to it as MPV, and talk to them about COVID. Because people who have HIV are four times more likely to have long COVID If they got COVID. And those who have monkeypox, 40% of individuals with Mpox are people living with HIV. So there's a high correlation between these situations, we have to provide education to everybody. And, you know, it's, at least in this environment, where people are aware of epidemics, we've got to bring this back to people's consciousness. And that's what World AIDS Day is about. It's an opportunity to remember those we lost, but also remember that this is still with us in our communities, and we need to consistently be on the outlook for its resurgence.”

World Aids Day is also a day of activism. HIV-positive New Yorkers are joining with elected officials and AIDS housing service providers in calling upon Governor Kathy Hochul and state lawmakers to prioritize statewide rental assistance for permanent supportive housing for New Yorkers living with HIV.

Albany Common Councilor Gabriella Romero represents the 6th Ward:

“And so the rally that that we're advocating for is to increase, specifically housing funds, but also the pay of HIV/AIDS service administrators, like these caseworkers that help specifically with people that are living with HIV and AIDS, funding that program and those service workers better so there's less turnaround," Romero said. "And those two nuances, I think, would really be positive moving in a good direction for those that are living with HIV and AIDS. So I guess to each of those points, the housing one, specifically, Governor Hochul, really didn't give any money in her budget, to housing for those living with HIV and AIDS. So this is a way to kind of hold her accountable as they move forward in their state of the state to make a new commitment and 2023 for those living with the virus.”

Hochul’s office responded to a request for comment via email:

“Governor Hochul is proud to continue New York‘s nation-leading support for individuals living with HIV/AIDS. Under her leadership, the state has invested heavily in the Homeless Housing and Assistance Program and Empire State Supportive Housing Initiative to build hundreds of units of supportive housing — including for New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS — and distributed more than $1.5 billion in rental assistance statewide. The Governor remains committed to working closely with the legislature on solutions to New York’s housing crisis and helping all New Yorkers find safe, stable, and affordable homes.”

Atkins says each World AIDS Day those who succumbed to the virus are remembered as candles of hope are lit for HIV survivors who continue to face stigma and other challenges.

“It’s a tragedy when somebody who's young gets infected and sees no path forward, even though we have treatment that will keep them alive, just the idea that they would have to live the rest of their life taking pills sometimes can affect their mental health and put them over the edge," said Atkins. "And that's happened. We need to use this World AIDS Day to regain the recognition of this epidemic that still goes on.”

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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