The following op-ed is re-printed in its entirety from the Asheville Citizen-Times on December 1, 2020.
By: Antonio Del Toro
Today is World AIDS Day. Western North Carolina AIDS Project (WNCAP) remembers all the lives that have been lost. We know that, in spite of scientific advances, the epidemic continues to overwhelm individuals and communities. People living with HIV continue to face stigma as do our clients who use drugs or struggle with homelessness. So many of our clients across our western North Carolina region are without family or community support because of how they live or who they love. WNCAP is a place where people can come to find dignity and hope.
With early diagnosis and treatment, people living with HIV can live long and vibrant lives. HIV medication lowers the amount of HIV in the body. Research has shown that those with an undetectable viral load cannot transmit the virus. Undetectable means Untransmittable, or U=U. There are now medications available to prevent HIV. PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is a once-daily pill taken by HIV negative individuals that’s highly effective, especially when combined with other prevention methods. PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) is an emergency medication that must be begun within 72 hours after a possible exposure.
These advances in treatment and medicine bring the end of the epidemic in sight, but only if everyone has access to culturally competent care and prevention services. Approximately 38,000 new HIV infections occur annually in the United States with the highest rates occurring in the South. Limited access to healthcare and living wages due to systemic racism lead to health inequities. The course of the epidemic disproportionately affects Black men, Latino men, Black Trans women, and Black Women. WNCAP, in partnership with grassroots organizations, and communities of color, expands access to care and prevention services for those most affected by HIV.
This year’s World AIDS Day theme, Ending the HIV/AIDS Epidemic: Resilience and Impact, resonates deeply with me. We can look back more than 30 years, when WNCAP was formed by a small group of determined people who had been helping provide food, comfort, and care to people with AIDS. They spent their time working to overcome the devastating consequences of homophobia, AIDS hysteria, housing discrimination, poverty, and hunger.
It is this legacy that influences our work today. WNCAP offers medical case management and supportive services to people living with HIV. We also offer HIV, Hep C, and STI testing, prevention education, harm reduction and syringe services, and pharmacy navigation services. All these programs increase access to care and reduce harm from HIV, Hep C, and drug use.
There has been no time since the peak of the AIDS epidemic when our work has been so critical. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our entire community, but has disproportionately affected the people we serve. With the continued support of grants, donors, and volunteers, WNCAP has been able to respond to a drastic increase in demand for services.
The number of case management clients increased by 16%. The amount we provided in rental, utility, and other emergency financial assistance increased by 51%. The number of clients provided home delivery of nutritious food increased by 62%. Distribution of the opioid overdose reversal medication, naloxone, increased by a staggering 540%. Times like these remind us all of how much we depend on each other.
World AIDS Day is different this year. Although we won’t be able to gather in person for our usual Community Luncheon, I am excited to share that this year we will be celebrating virtually. We will be posting videos throughout the day that commemorate those we have lost, honor the Volunteers of the Year, and more. We will also premiere the WNCAP Mini-Docs, a series of short documentaries that feature the stories of the people of western North Carolina. You will see the resilience of our neighbors who are most affected by HIV and drug use, and hear, in their own words, the impact of our work. To participate, follow @wncap all day on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or LinkedIn. Also, be sure to subscribe to the WNCAP e-newsletter by going to wncap.org.
Antonio Del Toro is the Executive Director of the Western North Carolina AIDS Project.