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Thirty Years of Walking

AIDS Walk 2019, still a necessary step.

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Houston’s AIDS Walk photographed by Morris Malakof.

I can’t believe we have been in this fight for 30 years,” says Nike Blue, chief program officer of AIDS Foundation Houston, Inc. As the state’s oldest HIV prevention, education, and services agency, the nonprofit sponsors the annual local AIDS Walk, which turns 30 this year. And that milestone is cause for both celebration and concern.

 “It’s a really fun event, rain or shine,” says Yesenia “Kimmy” Palacios, the project director of Fundación Latinoamericana de Acción Social, Inc. (FLAS), which enhances behavioral health and wellness services for the Latino community. “I’m in charge of getting all our staff and volunteers to register for the walk, distributing materials and shirts, organizing the team, and seeing that everyone has a good time.” FLAS’s team is usually 100 to 150 strong, and that includes Palacios and her children. “I bring them every year,” she says. “They love the bouncy-house.”

 “It’s a great way to get information to families,” says Blue. “We have vendors with literature, and we have fun stuff for the children. And the food trucks were very popular last year.”

 The 29th annual Walk last year had 9,000 attendees and raised $300,000 for AIDS Foundation and 12 other local HIV/AIDS service organizations, one of which was FLAS.

 “We were hoping to raise more,” says Blue. “But like so many nonprofits, we were impacted by Harvey. So many people had given what they could to the hurricane-relief efforts that they couldn’t give to the Walk. But we were still very grateful for the fact that it didn’t rain. Hopefully the weather gods will smile on us again this year.” Houston’s AIDS Walk was snake-bit (or maybe weather-bit) with a five-year run of rain, to the extent that one year they gave red umbrellas to the walkers.

 The Walk is a great way to raise funds and awareness for HIV/AIDS, but as Blue admits, it is sad that it is still needed today.

 And while the overall HIV/AIDS picture may be brighter, the statistics for Latinos grow dimmer by the year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that while overall new HIV diagnoses among men who have sex with men (MSM) stabilized between 2010 and 2014, diagnoses among Latino MSM increased 13 percent during that period. In fact, 9,290 Latino men received an HIV diagnosis in 2015. Latinos represent 17 percent of the population but account for 24 percent of all persons newly diagnosed.

“And it’s on the rise locally, too,” says Palacios. “The last couple of years, every year it has increased. And it is mostly men having casual sex with men. We see clients newly diagnosed who report sexual encounters with 30 to 40 partners in recent months, and they don’t even know their names. That’s why our Spanish-language marketing campaign is so important. A lot of them don’t know that PrEP can help high-risk candidates from being infected, and they don’t know about the new treatments and testing. Most of them don’t have insurance either, and don’t know about Federally Qualified Health Centers like Legacy Community Health, where they can get testing and treatments at rates they can afford. We can guide them to Legacy. So far, the campaign has been very effective. We had a billboard with a hot guy on it that generated a lot of phone calls and foot traffic. It was a traffic-stopper”—one that probably saved some lives.

“We are living in an unprecedented time,” says Blue. “We have the tools now; we have the testing and the treatments. If we had had PrEP and rapid testing 30 years ago, we wouldn’t still [need to do an annual AIDS walk] today.

 “You can find out if you are infected in less than 30 minutes, and treatment is not about taking 18 pills a day. Typically, you just take one pill daily to treat HIV, and it can make the virus undetectable. Undetectable means untransmittable. You can live a normal life.” 

But first you have to know about it.

What:  AIDS Walk 2019
When: Sunday, March 3
Where: Sam Houston Park, 1000 Bagby St.
Info:  aidshelp.org

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Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin has written about Texas culture, food, fashion, the arts, and Lone Star politics and crime for television, magazines, the web and newspapers nationwide, and worked in Houston politics for six years. Her freelance work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Texas Monthly, Dance International, Dance Magazine, the Advocate, Prime Living, InTown magazine, OutSmart magazine and web sites CultureMap Houston and Austin, Eater Houston and Gayot.com, among others.

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