Black elected officials in California respond to changing HIV/AIDS environment in Black communities
Zena Yusuf and Victor Hill at the Los Angeles Black PrEP Summit.
LOS ANGELES, CALIF. — On March 31, 2016, the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Treatment Advocates Network, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, FAME Corporations, Gilead Sciences, Car Pros Kia of Carson, the Black AIDS Institute and local AIDS service organizations hosted “Black Lives Matter: What’s PrEP Got to Do With It,” a day-long summit held at FAME Corporations to raise awareness and understanding of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) in Black communities in Los Angeles County.
The event was the latest stop on the PrEP Tour, sponsored by the Black AIDS Institute (BAI) and Gilead Sciences, which is being held across the nation to raise awareness about biomedical prevention tools like PrEP, which reduces the risk of acquiring HIV, and treatment as prevention (TasP), which reduces the risk of transmitting HIV. The Los Angeles gathering included participants from both the medical and political communities, two constituencies vital in ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
California politicians have a long history of leadership in fighting HIV/AIDS, but local elected officials are redoubling their efforts.
While Los Angeles has a lower HIV infection rather than some major metropolitan areas, the rates in Los Angeles are still high, and Black men and wo-men are contracting the disease at higher rates than their white or Hispanic counterparts.
In fact, L.A. County’s 2013 Surveillance Report (pdf) found that Black Angelenos acquire HIV at more than triple the rate of whites, which has prompted local officials to make ending the spread of the epidemic a top priority.
Ridley-Thomas, who has been in the fight against HIV since his days as a Los Angeles City Council member, has instituted a plan of action to combat HIV. Under his leadership in the 2nd District, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a plan to ramp up distribution of PrEP, including in county jails and youth detention camps.
The move is in line with Ridley-Thomas’ mission to end the spread of HIV in his district. “It is time that we come together and educate ourselves and work together across organizational boundaries to have real discussions about HIV and the high rates in our communities,” Ridley-Thomas said last year at an event targeting Black women and girls.
Democratic state Assembly man Mike Gipson, from California’s 64th District, has also made preventing new infections one of his top priorities since taking office in 2014.
In addition to chairing California’s Assembly Select Committee on Infectious Diseases in High Risk Disadvantaged Communities, which is working to formulate a statewide plan to end HIV transmissions, Gipson has been hosting a series of events around the state aimed at stopping the spread of HIV in Los Angeles and reducing barriers to care.
“I am committed to helping to address these issues in our community,” Gipson said during last month’s “Getting to Zero” hearing at Charles Drew University in South Los Angeles. “We live in an era now when our technology is advancing to a state where people shouldn’t be dying based on certain diagnosis, so we want to do everything we can around these particular issues.”
Gipson has introduced a series of legislative proposals targeting the epidemic, including Assembly Bill 2640 (pdf), which would require doctors to inform those at high risk of HIV about preventive treatments, and Assembly Bill 2179, which would allow hepatitis C (HCV) counselors to perform combined HIV/HCV tests.
“I cannot sit in Sacramento and realize there’s an issue that exists and not address it,” Gipson said, explaining that his commitment to stopping the disease hits close to home because AIDS claimed the lives of his godson’s parents.
According to Phill Wilson, president and chief executive officer of the BAI, having fierce political advocates like Ridley-Thomas and Gipson is not only helpful but also necessary to ending the epidemic.
“Black elected officials have been the tip of the spear among elected officials’ response to the AIDS epidemic. In California we have been particularly lucky,” he said, touting the contributions of Reps. Barbara Lee and Maxine Waters, the leadership of Ridley-Thomas and Gipson, and the support of Councilmen Herb Wesson and Curren Price and state Sen. Holly Mitchell.
“Given the demographics of the epidemic and the disparity that exists between Black communities and other racial-ethnic groups, Black elected officials have a unique roll to play,” Wilson said. “As we begin to explore the utilization of new technologies like PrEP, TasP and hopefully a vaccine, the leadership of Black elected officials will be more important than ever before, because there is a lot of apathy in the community, driven by a false belief that the AIDS epidemic is over.”
While Wilson praises the efforts and support of those in local and federal government who have taken up the fight against AIDS, he’s calling on them to do even more.
“We are very grateful for the past support of Black elected officials who have helped us get this far, but now we’re at the point where the rubber hits the road, and we’re going to need them to re-engage and put the pedal to the metal to get to the end of the epidemic. There just might be a light at the end of the tunnel. What we do now will determine whether we reach it or not.”
Britni Danielle is a Los Angeles-based writer and novelist who frequently covers pop culture, race and parenting. You can follow her on Twitter.