Dr. Kevin Fenton has much to be proud of during his eight years at the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, especially the strong relationships he and the federal agency forged with local and community-based organizations.
Fenton steps down from his position as director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD & TB Prevention after a seven-year tenure on Dec. 21 and returns to his home in the U.K. on Dec. 31.
Dr. Rima Khabbaz, director of the Office of Infectious Diseases, will begin serving as acting director of NCHHSTP on Jan. 2, 2013, while a national search is conducted to select a permanent director.
Prior to holding the top HIV division post, Fenton worked as chief of CDC’s National Syphilis Elimination Effort.
In April 2013 he begins his new job as Director for Health Improvement & Population Health for Public Health England.
“It really is bittersweet,” Fenton said in a phone interview with the GA Voice about his leaving the CDC.
Working with so many dedicated professionals — in the CDC, local health departments, community groups and the private sector — has been a humbling and powerful journey, he said.
But Fenton looks forward to returning home, reuniting with his partner who moved back to England two years ago, and beginning a new chapter in his professional career.
Implementing the first United States domestic national HIV strategy is at the top of Fenton’s list of proud accomplishments with the CDC.
Still, he remains worried about the trend of gay men, especially young gay men and young black gay men, continuing to be the population with the highest rates of HIV infections each year.
“It’s not only HIV but also increases in STDs such as gonorrhea and syphilis,” Fenton said. “That really suggests to me that we need to be ensuring that we are both identifying young people who might be at risk before they become sexually active in our schools and ensuring that we are equipping them with the right information so they can make informed choices when they do become sexually active.”
And when young people do begin having sex, it is important for the CDC and other agencies and organizations to meet them where they work, study, play and socialize “in ways that are meaningful so they can continue to protect their health,” Fenton said.
“Part of that engagement of young people will involve working with our community partners and focusing on strengthening access to HIV screenings,” he said.
A gay man and a gay leader
Hard-hitting campaigns such as the CDC’s “Testing Makes Us Stronger,” an effort that specifically targets young black gay men about knowing their HIV status, are also invaluable to ensuring a healthy gay male population, Fenton said.
“As a gay man and gay leader, I’m always been committed to ensuring we can do the best we can for the communities that are hardest hit,” he said.
Over the last seven years the CDC has ramped up HIV testing, creating culturally competent resources and utilizing social marketing campaigns such as “Testing Makes Us Stronger” to reach populations most at risk.
“The Testing Makes Us Stronger” campaign is the first time the CDC really showed strong images of black gay men and also showed that caring about one’s health is valuable.
Schools — yes, public schools — need to put aside homophobia when teaching sex ed and make sure LGBT students are also considered and given information they need to know to stay safe, Fenton said.
Abstinence may be the best way to remain HIV negative, but school administrators are better serving their communities when they realize some teenagers are sexually active and take that into account when designing curriculum.
But it is also the role of gay organizations, particularly national gay organizations, to ensure HIV/AIDS prevention remains at the top of the list of priorities, he said.
“I think for many gay organizations, national ones, we have been necessarily focusing a lot on marriage equality and other big issues that I think are important to our community,” Fenton said.
Those issues remain important, but HIV/AIDS cannot be forgotten in the fight for equality by those it impacts most, Fenton stressed.
“We have to take responsibility to protect our health,” he said.
Understanding all ‘drivers’ of HIV
Fenton said that he is proud the CDC is also taking a leading role in understanding that behavior is not the only reason some people, including gay men, take risks with their health and become HIV positive.
Poverty, racism, homophobia, high rates of incarceration, stigma, discrimination — all of these also can lead to increases in HIV infections.
“We’ve accelerated our efforts to focus on not just the individual behaviors … but the social, cultural and contextual drivers of HIV,” he said.
During his last year at the CDC, Fenton traveled the country to hold town hall meetings about how to combat HIV, especially among young gay men. The message from local health departments and community organizations was clear.
“The consistency of the messaging we heard was heart wrenching — whether it was homophobia and racism, especially by black and Latino gay men, or issues related to rejection by family or church,” he said.
“To hear stories of young gay men kicked out of their homes because they came out to their parents and then were homeless and turned to drugs or sex and seroconverted in the first year — this really illustrates the depth of the work we need to do,” Fenton said.
Safer sex is no longer seen as something that should be practiced consistently and there is no sense of urgency in staying safe, he said.
“We have to focus on issues related to equity and social justice and ensuring lives of LGBT people are valued and supported by communities and families across the country,” he said.
Top photo: Kevin Fenton steps down this month after seven years as the director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD & TB Prevention. (courtesy CDC)