A new HIV testing campaign has been rolled out in Southwest Philadelphia.
“Do One Thing, Change Everything” is a neighborhood based HIV and hepatitis C (HCV) campaign launched in the neighborhood of zip code 19143, where 89 percent of HIV cases are among African Americans.
Led by Amy Nunn, a faculty member at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, the campaign is a comprehensive approach to combating HIV and hepatitis C in underserved communities.
“What’s different about this program is that it’s focused on the neighborhood as a unit of intervention. Instead of focusing on individual risk behaviors we’re trying encourage the entire community to get tested,” says Nunn.
The campaign includes a large-scale social marketing and media promotion plan developed with Uniworld Group and Clear Channel, and massive mobilization of community leaders, clergy, businesses, block captains and local institutions to promote and de-stigmatize testing.
Under the initiative, a team of outreach workers is going throughout the community and encouraging residents to get tested via its mobile testing unit or clinic partner, the Health Annex, at 61st and Woodland Avenue.
As a part of the campaign, the Health Annex started offering routine HIV testing in March to all patients 13 and older.
“There’s definitely still some work to do about getting people to a place where they feel comfortable consenting to the test and understanding why it’s so important to know your results,” says Health Annex Director Emily Nichols.
Since the Health Annex started offering routine HIV testing, Nichols says about 500 patients a month were offered the opportunity to be tested, however approximately half declined.
The federally qualified health center features an HIV primary care program where people can receive comprehensive treatment.
The primary goal of “Do One Thing” is to diagnose and link as many individuals as possible to care services to reduce racial disparities in HIV and HCV infection. The secondary goal is to create a HIV and HCV prevention model that can be replicated in other urban settings, with a focus on federally qualified health centers.
“We’re trying to stimulate the demand for testing and provide it and I think that this will become increasingly more important as more people get their care in federally qualified health centers and we fill that gap of treating people who are uninsured,” says Nunn.
“We want to scale up clinical testing and non-clinical testing because we recognize that not everyone is going to go in and tested at the doctor’s (office) — particularly men. Women are easier to catch. It’s much more difficult to reach men.”
Nunn and her partners plan to test 3,000 people during the project’s pilot phase. The full program aims to test 12,000 individuals.
The new initiative comes at a time when there’s been a massive push to encourage people to learn their status and get into treatment if they test positive for HIV. Nunn says research has shown that people who are on treatment can reduce the chance of transmitting the virus to others by 96 percent.
Elhadji Ndiaye, a community organizer with the Southwest Community Development Corporation (CDC) welcomes the new HIV testing initiative. He’s been instrumental in setting up meetings between Nunn’s team and area block captains.
Ndiaye says the “Do One Thing” initiative could help de-stigmatize HIV among Southwest Philadelphia’s large population of African immigrants.
“We could use their assistance,” Ndiaye says of the “Do One Thing” organizers.
“For some African countries, HIV is still taboo so we are trying to address that and tell our folks that HIV is not a death sentence and if you are positive you can get the help you need,” says Ndiaye.
That’s the message of a new promotion initiated by the Health Annex located at 6120 Woodland Ave. in Southwest Philadelphia.
While Black men are disproportionately affected by such chronic ailments as high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, they are also least likely to seek regular check-ups from healthcare professionals.
This is where Michael Rhoads, community outreach specialist for the Health Annex, steps in.
“It’s a mentality which, for some reason, we have,” he said. “As I think about it, it’s been embedded in us since we were very young.
“Coming up, either your father, big brother or uncle told you that being a man means being able to take pain or deal with pain and move on,” Rhoads added.
Rhoads has a different message.
According to him, many ailments, if diagnosed early enough and properly treated could be prevented or cured. The key is early check-ups.
“If you have a pain in your side or in your leg, I’m saying call [the Health Annex] 8 in the morning and lets get you the help you need,” he said.
Another reason Rhoads believes that black men hesitate to get medical attention is fear.
“Some of us just don’t wait to know, are scared to know, that they have a prostrate issue or their kidney might be failing,” Rhoads said. “In this case, the old adage ‘what you don’t know can’t hurt you,’ does not apply to health issues. What you don’t know can hurt you very, very much.”
The Health Annex is a state of the art medical facility with ten primary care rooms, five behavioral health rooms, seven dental offices, several conference rooms and a staff consisting of social workers, a podiatrist, eye specialists and a prenatal doctor.
“It’s a one stop shop and it is a beautiful facility,” Rhoads said.
Insurance, another barrier to seeking treatment, is not an issue at the Annex, according to Rhoads.
He recalled attending the funeral of a man who died of prostate cancer. He was only 34.
“I encourage men to get prostrate exams. It’s the most preventable form of cancer there is,” Rhoads said. “You do not have to die from prostrate cancer. It is curable if detected early.”
A common misconception is that prostate exams begin with the uncomfortable rectal examinations. This isn’t true says Rhoads. A blood test is first taken from patients and, if the test indicates further evaluation of the prostate is required, a rectal exam is then prescribed.
HIV/AIDS is another disease, which disproportionately affects Black men, which fear of testing positive may prevent them from being tested.
Rhoads, who regularly provides free testing throughout the community, knows from personal experience what it’s like to have to inform someone that they have tested positive for the virus, which causes AIDS.
“The first thing I have to do is give them the results,” said Rhoads about those who have tested positive. “That’s heartbreaking and a lot of times people can’t hear you after that.”
Rhoads recommends people get tested and those who test positive should immediately contact the Health Annex to be given the proper treatment and supportive services needed.
“There are a lot of resources available for people who test positive,” he said. “With today’s medication and technology, you can live a full life [with HIV] without it progressing into AIDS, but you will have to do some things differently.”
While Rhoads advocates abstinence as the best form of protection against HIV/AIDS, he acknowledges the statistics reveal the likelihood most will engage in some form of sexual activity. It is during these times when education and safety precautions are essential.
The Health Annex not only provides for physical health and well-being but, according to center director, Emily Nichols, it also provides a wide range of mental health, family support and other services to the community.
“We have parenting workshops, nutrition groups, peer specialists. We see everyone regardless of insurance,” she said. “We see everybody.”