AIDS Walk Atlanta: Community, History and HIV Prevention

Introduction

On this hot September day, thousands of people gathered in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park for the 2019 AIDS Walk Atlanta. Bringing the community together for a day of celebration, fundraising, and remembrance for the 29th year, AID Atlanta’s dedicated team of staff and volunteers provided on-the spot HIV testing with INSTI. The event included runners raising up to $750,000 for local causes, some of Atlanta’s most popular artists performing for an energetic crowd, and sponsors, including bioLytical, providing education, information and fun activities for the attendees.

HIV in Atlanta

Steven Igarashi-Ball, AID Atlanta’s Assistant Event and Teams Manager explains that the AIDS walk is as relevant today as it was in 1990, saying, “It’s still something we need. There continues to be so much stigma and shame associated with HIV in our community, despite having testing and treatment more readily available than ever. That’s why a public event like the walk is so important. It shines a spotlight on the issue and starts up community conversations.” With an HIV infection rate compared to that of sub-Saharan Africa, Atlanta has been identified a “hot spot” in North America’s HIV epidemic. Furthermore, it was named one of North America’s Fast Track Cities by IAPAC and UNAIDS, and is a key part of the United States’ Ending the Epidemic initiative.  Particularly impacted is the city’s African American community, which accounts for 34.6% of the city’s population but more than 70% of people living with HIV.

One Minute HIV Testing

Steven started his career with AID Atlanta more than 10 years ago, leading outreach programs for MSM (men who have sex with men) and working as an HIV tester. “I understand the value of every dollar we spend, having seen first-hand the impact that it has on our community,” says Steven. “For me, the AIDS Walk is the culmination of all this experience, bringing together fundraising with outreach, awareness, education and an opportunity for testing.” As the organizer of this year’s event, Steven felt a close connection with the participants, saying, “The moment when I was looking out from behind the stage, seeing the runners cross the finish line and the crowd cheering, that felt really meant a lot to me.”

Steven explains that testing has been a crucial part of the event for several years, and that using INSTI has made a considerable difference compared with other tests: “When testing is fast and portable, it’s so much easier to offer it there and then. Removing the barriers to access is a huge priority for us. The INSTI test kit is game-changing because it allows people to know their status so quickly.”

DeWayne Ford is the Director of HIV Education and Prevention Services and has worked for AID Atlanta for almost 14 years. He agrees that having a one-minute test is important for mass testing event. “This year we were able to test 72 people in a single day,” he says. “As the event promotes HIV/AIDS awareness, it’s natural that we would also offer rapid HIV testing.  We want to make sure everyone knows they can get their test results in 60 seconds. It’s so much easier and more attractive for people to come and get tested if they know it’s that fast.”

AID Atlanta's Year-Round Services

DeWayne explains that for AID Atlanta, HIV testing is an everyday focus and not just an annual occurrence, with INSTI as the first-line screening test in their algorithm. He says, “One of the key elements of my job and the most important initiatives for us is HIV testing. As part of our plan for ending the epidemic in Atlanta, we’re making sure that testing is consistently available in the community. The AIDS Walk is our biggest platform for raising awareness, but we also work towards normalizing HIV testing every day. We want to help people realize it can be part of their routine.”

Like all community-based organizations, AID Atlanta is focused on the specific needs of its local population. DeWayne explains, “We are seeing the highest HIV incidence from people in same sex relationships, especially black males.  We are also seeing a rise in HIV among African American women. We target the groups that are most affected and those at highest risk through our programming and education initiatives. We provide a wraparound service, including connecting people with peer navigators and supporting with HIV prevention methods, including PrEP.  We also ensure that anyone who does test positive is linked to medical care and other forms of support. The statistics show that some people living with HIV in Atlanta are falling out of care, so we work hard to get them back to treatment and viral suppression.”

Reflections on the 29th AIDS Walk Atlanta

With Steven’s expertise from AIDS Walk Atlanta, he shares his advice for organizations planning their own mass testing, fundraising and entertainment events, “It’s all about flexibility! Things never go exactly how you planned them to be but if you are open to changes then you’ll have a more successful event,” he explains. “With that, you should also be sure to keep things relevant, and find ways to improve. You can step outside of your history and still recognize what came before you. But most importantly, for any fundraising event, it’s about the community partnerships from sponsors to participants. You can’t have a successful fundraiser without them.”

For AID Atlanta, the action, awareness and education reach far beyond this annual event. Steven says, “People are still getting HIV at much too high of a rate and there can be a false sense of security when it comes to HIV. We still haven’t conquered it.” DeWayne agrees, saying, “There is still a lot of work to be done and an effort required across the community to beat HIV in Atlanta and around the world. We must be diligent and intentional with testing, as well as focusing on what our community needs.”

AID Atlanta has been providing HIV/AIDS-related services, care, and education since its inception in 1982. Today, AID Atlanta offers a broad range of services and has grown to be the most comprehensive AIDS service organization in the Southeast.  AID Atlanta currently offers HIV/AIDS prevention and care services, including (but not limited to) HIV Medical Care, HIV/STD Screening, PrEP, Community HIV Prevention Programs, Linkage Services, Case Management, and a state-wide Information Hotline.  The mission of AID Atlanta is to reduce new HIV infections and improve the quality of life of its members and the community by breaking barriers and building community.

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