The Symposium: People Living with AIDS comes to Atlanta on March 19 to give a voice to those living with HIV. Hosted by Carl Bean Men’s Health and Wellness Center, the event is designed to inform and connect people impacted by HIV with resources to help them live long, happy lives.
The symposium comes at a crucial time in Georgia’s HIV epidemic. Atlanta has one of the highest infection rates in the country, with WSB-TV reporting that one in every 51 people is diagnosed with HIV. Because of the resurgence of the omicron variant of COVID-19, many of the medical resources regularly available to people with HIV now must be used online or over the phone. The difficulty caused by this barrier between people with HIV and medical professionals is exacerbated by the disparities within those infected with HIV. The CDC found that HIV rates are significantly higher in urban and impoverished communities, meaning those living with the disease may not have access to the internet and thus have limited access to medical care.
“The COVID pandemic has impacted the resources that we provide and a lot of resources other agencies provide,” Hermeyone Bell, director at the Men’s Health Center and HIV specialist, told Georgia Voice. “Some of the services have been changed because we do telecom visits as well as limited in-person visits to help mitigate the spread of COVID. And with some of our clients who are living with HIV, because they are immunocompromised, they might be at more risk of serious illness if they come down with COVID.”
During a time when access to medical care feels limited, the symposium’s mission is to inform people living with HIV of the resources and health strategies they can use to lead long, fulfilling lives. Indeed, the Men’s Health Center emphasized on its website that the symposium will be “BOLD and UNAPOLOGETIC in speaking truth that HIV is not a death sentence.” The website aidsmap reported that, with recent advancement in medicine, life expectancy for those living with HIV who started treatment early can be as long as their uninfected peers.
“There is no cure for HIV, but people who are living with HIV can have normal lifespans while they’re taking medication for treatment of HIV,” Bell said. “That helps them continue to live their lives with work, play, and family and everything like that.”
The symposium will also provide workshops that promote positive health outcomes and lifestyles. These workshops will look at how nutrition, exercise, and life lessons can help people living with HIV take their health into their own hands while working in coordination with their doctors.
“It’s really important to know about your health and to be a part of your health care,” Bell said. “We talk about why talking to your health care provider, speaking with people in the community who might be affected by HIV, and learning all those concepts about knowing your own health are important. Our tag line is ‘It’s your health: Own it!’ That’s how it goes.”
To specifically address Atlanta’s HIV epidemic, the symposium will have speakers who are locally, nationally, and internationally known address and share their points of view on the city’s epidemic. Furthermore, different Atlanta agencies will have the opportunity to have an exhibit or presence at the symposium where they can “refer or tell people about the resources they have to connect these people with the resources they need to live healthily with HIV.”
The symposium will also address HIV criminalization. Georgia has some of the harshest HIV criminalization laws, which can lead a person who does not disclose their positive HIV status prior to sex to be charged with a felony and, if convicted, receive up to 10 years in prison. Recent efforts have been made to modernize these laws, such as Senate Bill 164 in 2021. However, that bill did not pass, and Georgia’s HIV criminalization laws still stand.
“We need to revisit the criminalization laws here in Georgia,” Bell said. “Now in this day and age of treating HIV, you equals you. If someone has an undetectable viral load, the virus is nontransmissible, so we need to get that information out there. And there are some people out there living with HIV who do not even know what the laws are regarding transmission or disclosure with a sexual partner, so we hope the symposium helps inform those people.”
To register for the Symposium: People Living with AIDS, visit menshealthcenter.org/register.