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Reflecting on 30 Years…

Dena Fontno-Gray, HIV Prevention Program Manager for the City of Houston, looks back on major accomplishments in the fight against HIV/AIDS for the past 30 years.

Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.

As I reflect on the past 30 years and all that has transpired in an effort to eradicate HIV from our lives, a mentor’s saying comes to mind…“Sometimes you have to build and fly the plane.” That was her way of telling us that there are core elements you must have in order to accomplish a task and that whatever is added to the core makes the “plane” or situation better. As a collective community, we can agree there have been some notable accomplishments that we can be proud of. Since the dawn of the epidemic, we have seen the mortality rate of HIV positive people decrease due to medical advances and HAART (Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy). We have advanced our understanding of the disease transmission by broadening our focus from behavioral risks to the inclusion of critical factors such as poverty and gender inequality. And important to most of us, we have worked with our federal partners to create the National HIV/AIDS Strategy under the leadership of President Barack Obama. Indeed, we can say we have core accomplishments or “the plane is flying.”

As an African American woman living with HIV and an advocate for the positive community, I appreciate the opportunity provided by Champions for Change to offer voice to where we go next. By talking with other advocates and our federal partners, I can affirm that we are all still trying to put some real metal on the plane. In my humble yet tenured opinion, we must focus on three elements: un-blinded and active participation from within the HIV community, ongoing prevention education and community awareness and collaborative implementation of processes and services. HIV remains a preventable disease and if we continue to work together, it can be eliminated.

Going into the fourth decade fighting HIV will require a higher level of involvement, not just from the government, but from the people as well. With the steady increase in HIV among the nation’s youth and senior populations, we cannot afford to keep the blinders on and think that HIV cannot affect us or we can just take a pill. The HIV community must stand up and vocally address the barriers to receiving proper and life-sustaining care. People living with HIV are the most relevant champions of all and un-blinded participation is our only option. Through entities such as the HIV Prevention Community Planning Group or the Ryan White Planning Council, our voice is sought and needed. Today, I have the awesome privilege of serving as Board Chair for the Community Education Group, Inc. in Washington, D.C., and that platform, along with my role as HIV Prevention Program Manager for the City of Houston Health Department allows me the opportunity to get involved in all decision-making aspects of HIV prevention and care. We must take the blinders off, be at the table and continue to use our experience and voice, regardless of how we got here, to champion the need for increased HIV/AIDS funding and the promotion of community education.

Celebrating the Champions of Change recognition with me are eight other individuals whose participation in the fight against HIV has made a lasting impact on where we are today. One strong take-away from our day long visit is that education and awareness of HIV must remain a top priority and receive the same attention and funding as research and medical advances. Why simply manage a disease when you can prevent it all together? Combined, these Champions are truly the rainbow coalition and I hope that you will take a minute to read their blogs. What you will find is that although we are different in age, experience, gender and race, we all are “building the same plane”, fighting the same battle. Over the last 30 years, the HIV community has established a strong history of advocacy and those champion efforts must be discussed and analyzed. If we don’t understand and study where we have come from, we will not be able to formulate and implement a comprehensive plan for where we should go next. No longer can we afford to remain in our own silos, talking only to one another. Community awareness and prevention education must be embarked upon on all levels, across diverse populations and consistently through intervention strategies.  

The National HIV/AIDS Strategy is President Obama administration’s attempt to establish top level collaborative involvement and implementation, which, if successful, could result in greater coordination of resources and services at the community level. But this is not just a federal initiative. The National Strategy requires the support of the nation. Businesses must see the impact of HIV on their financial bottom-line, churches must address the devastation caused by this disease on their congregation and schools must recognize and challenge the increased rate of HIV among youth. In Houston, the Health Department, through the HIV/STD and Viral Hepatitis Program, 97.9 The Boxx FM Radio and local community based organizations collaborate on the annual HIP HOP for HIV Awareness Campaign and Concert. Through this unique community/business/government partnership, 15,000 youth and young adults between the ages of 13-35 learn their status and if HIV positive, provided with access to care. Entering our fifth year we, on the local level, are already pursuing the goals of the National Strategy. This is just one example of collaboration and implementation that is taking place across the country.

As we move forward into another decade, collective ongoing collaboration, participation and education will be critical in mirroring the advances in medical treatment. I am grateful to President Barack Obama for recognizing the work on the ground and valuing the efforts of characters such as the “Washington Eight” as we call ourselves now. Thank you to the White House Office on National AIDS Policy, the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, Assistant Secretary of Health, SAMSHA, HOPWA (Housing Opportunity for People with AIDS), the Office of Minority Health and the Office of Women’s Health for giving us the opportunity to meet and discuss the future of HIV prevention, care and treatment. The new plane is looking and flying great!

Dena Fontno-Gray is the HIV Prevention Program Manager for the City of Houston, HIV/STD, Viral Hepatitis and Re-Entry Program.