Evelyn Ullah: A crusader in the fight against HIV/AIDS from the beginning
By Tamara E. Holmes
Since 1982 Evelyn Ullah has followed a personal call to make life better for PLWHA. Today the director of the STD/HIV/AIDS Prevention Program for the Broward County Health Department—which covers Fort Lauderdale, Fla.—shares her thoughts on the challenges that remain and her vision for finally achieving an AIDS-free generation.
Where do you think we stand in the fight to end HIV/AIDS?
Everybody talks about how we have the tools necessary to prevent the spread of HIV and bring an end to the crisis, but we have so many challenges: implementing healthcare reform; protecting human rights; addressing the needs of women and girls; ensuring accountability; and combating stigma, poverty and other social challenges. I’m not certain that we’re embracing all of that as we plan our programs. We have to underscore the critical need for greater education. That’s what I admire and embrace about the Black Treatment Advocates Network. Through that network, we can truly educate our consumers and our community and promote access to testing, treatment and regular healthcare services.
How successful has Broward County been in curbing the epidemic?
In Broward County, if we want to achieve the beginning of the end of AIDS, we have to begin the conversation by telling our stories to combat stigma. Stigma is the biggest driver of HIV in our local community. We all have a personal role to play in being that voice for change, and it’s through the courage of storytelling that we learn together and from each other. HIV isolates people. So we need to bring people from a place of isolation to a place of community.
What additional lessons can we learn from Broward County?
What works here in Broward County may not work in neigh-boring counties or another state. So we really need to understand what is happening in our backyard. One of the tenets of the Broward Greater Than AIDS campaign is to know your status. So people need to get tested, and providers need to offer the opportunity for their patients to get tested. We have physician ambassadors—we have ambassadors for many things that we do here—be-cause that’s the way of engaging the community to buy in and be part of the solution.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
We’re so proud that we just passed the most comprehensive sexual-education curriculum in the nation. So we’re going to be able to work toward curbing the epidemic by increasing awareness among students and their families and the faculty.
We have developed an internal integrated work plan to educate the staff of obgyns, labor and delivery hospitals and birthing centers to comply with Florida statutes in evidenced-based standards for pregnant women and HIV care.
We have a strong business response and have identified more than 300 businesses in our neighborhoods to help promote prevention messaging and to distribute condoms. We have trained more than 200 new HIV-testing counselors. Our linkage-to-care rate is higher than the national average.
We continue to provide relevant information to community providers regarding pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). We had a town hall meeting where we had 210 people participate. Now we’re planning a series of community forums and conversations on PrEP.
What has been the most re-warding aspect of your work?
I’ve been working in HIV since 1982. Every day I learn something new about my community, about this virus and about myself. I became involved when I was working at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx in New York City, and I recall vividly how ignorant and scared medical staff were in approaching this unknown disease, and the inhumane treatment of patients and their families. As a nurse and a social worker, I would say, “We took an oath to take care of those that are ill, and we’re not doing that.” During that time I had two relatives, then subsequently four, who were diagnosed and then subsequently died from HIV-related complications. So I made it my lifelong fight to change community perceptions, help promote prevention and health wellness, and advocate for HIV issues with special attention to communities of color.
What’s on the horizon?
I want to help us prepare ultimately for an AIDS-free generation. I believe in that vision. It’s going to take a lot of work, but it’s a journey worth traveling despite all of the barriers and the challenges. We have an opportunity to lead a real change, and that’s what we’re attempting to do. There’s an African proverb that I really love: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I truly embrace that.
Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes about health, wealth and personal growth.