Key players, caregivers and community activists from across the state converged at the University of Alabama at Birmingham last week to discuss “Ending AIDS in Alabama.” Their mission was to lay the groundwork for a strategic dialogue and walk away with action items to get them closer to eradicating the disease. The event was sponsored by the UAB Center for AIDS Research, the UAB School of Medicine and the National Minority AIDS Council.
Organizers challenged the audience to write down three personal goals for the meeting. Then, they launched into a daylong discussion of the major issues that prevail across the state, including testing, linkage to care, retention and reengagement in care.
Attendees sat in a circle, listened to expert panelists, then chimed in with opinions. Among the attendees was Mary Elizabeth Marr, director of the AIDS Action Coalition in Huntsville. She talked about her successes and challenges while serving her population.
With the help of grants, she has provided important educational training such as instructing families of recently released prisoners about reunification issues. Marr encouraged the audience to branch out of their walls to connect with other agencies that may be able to help further their causes with resources and advice. Doing so proved beneficial to her, she said.
Janet Johnson, a peer mentor with the Alabama Department Public Health who is HIV positive, shared her story of living with the disease. Based in rural Arab, Alabama, she was 30 miles from Huntsville and 60 miles from Birmingham. She painted the picture of the face of the HIV positive person living outside of access to major care.
“We know the fear,” Johnson said. “We know the discrimination. We know the stigma. We can hold their hand.”
Attendees discussed the shame and blame that many HIV-positive patients face when they are diagnosed. They also talked about the challenges of providing care to patients who are homeless and substance abusers.
The group mentioned the need for linking their services together, as well as the need for an online repository for data that will cut down on the red tape for patients needing to make appointments.
“We can have an impact when you put the pieces together,” said Chris Retan, executive of the Aletheia House. “We can take what we have and create partnerships.”