At the finish line of last year's AIDS Walk.
The vast majority of AIDS Athens clients are on medication and symptom-free, but that doesn’t mean the fight against HIV and AIDS is over.
In addition to seeking funding to continue treating the medical needs of its clients, AIDS Athens also works to maintain their mental health and educate the community. While the organization continues to see medical success rates much higher than the national average, says interim director Cassandra Bray, the biggest challenges faces are stigma, discrimination and shaming towards those infected with HIV/AIDS.
Bray tells the story of how community-wide rumors and shaming on social media led one Athens woman to stop seeking out treatment for HIV/AIDS, eventually leading to her death. Because of those stigmas, her son, who was once a happy, well-adjusted 6-year-old, was also bullied at school. Following her death, not only was her son left without a mother, but he now struggles with anxiety and behavioral problems, and no longer likes to go to school.
“Because of ignorance in the community, unfortunately, I can tell one too many stories like this,” Bray says. “HIV/AIDS is a medical condition, not a result of immorality.”
For many, thankfully, the medical condition is under control. Through the help of donations like those raised from this Sunday’s walk, AIDS Athens is able to link individuals infected with HIV/AIDS to proper treatment. Ninety-two percent of their clients are taking the critical antiretroviral medication that slows the growth of HIV, and 89 percent of those clients have an undetectable viral load.
“Having an undetectable viral load is good for two reasons,” Bray says. “It means the medication is working and they are taking their medications like they are supposed to.” In fact, when HIV is suppressed to the point of being “undetectable,” it means someone is 96 percent less likely to pass on the virus, an important source of secondary prevention, she says.
Of the individuals and families AIDS Athens has placed in homes in the past year, 98 percent have remained stably housed, which Bray describes as “one of the basic parts of health care.” With stable housing, people have a place to safely live, take care of themselves and prepare food, all of which contribute to someone being more likely to accept treatment and correctly take their medications, she says.
Such programs are the beneficiaries of AIDS Athens’ annual three-mile walk fundraiser, scheduled for 9 a.m.–noon Saturday, Oct. 8, starting and ending at the Tate Student Center on campus. The goal is to raise $30,000 for a new primary care clinic the nonprofit is opening in partnership with the Athens Nurses Clinic at the new Athens Resource Center for Hope.
By opening the clinic, the agency will be able to fulfill part of its original charter, which required part of its building to operate as a primary care facility. While the new ARCH building on North Avenue opened in the spring, the organization did not yet have money to open the clinic. Now, AIDS Athens will extend its ability to “enhance and enrich the quality of life for those living with HIV/AIDS,” according to the event website.
This year, registration is free for all participants. Those who want a T-shirt, however, have to donate or raise at least $100. All proceeds go to support the fight against HIV/AIDS in 10 Northeast Georgia counties.
Since last year’s walk, “we’ve had a lot of growth with the agency,” Bray says, including opening the new headquarters at the ARCH. “In upcoming months, AIDS Athens plans to broaden their mission and services while staying true to their core population,” she says. Their goal is to show victims that through positivity and support from the agency, family and friends, “they can live productive lives, even with HIV.”
Walk participants can pre-register through a link at aidsathens.org, and day-of registration begins at 8 a.m. An after-walk celebration will be held from 12–4 p.m. at the Caledonia Lounge with music, prizes and lunch. It’s free for walkers but open to non-walkers as well, for a small fee.
WHAT: AIDS Walk 2016
WHERE: Tate Student Center
WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 8, 9 a.m.–noon
HOW MUCH: FREE! ($100 suggested donation)