Monday, Feb. 18, 2019 | 2 a.m.
For more than three decades, Aid for AIDS of Nevada has been providing services to the HIV-positive community when others shut their doors. As AFAN celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, the nonprofit is also celebrating a new office location, which will help more clients get the critical care they need.
Last week, AFAN settled into its new location at 1830 E. Sahara Avenue. The office, located on the second floor, sits across the hall from the Huntridge Family Clinic, an AFAN partner and medical clinic that specializes in serving the LGBTQ community.
“The less distance you have [from] other providers, the more ability you have with clients to follow up with their appointments,” AFAN executive director Antioco Carrillo said. “It’s easy for us to open up the door and say, ‘go to that suite’ and vice versa.”
There are more than 1.1 million people living with HIV in the United States, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. More than 700,000 people have died from AIDS-related causes since the beginning of the epidemic in 1981.
“HIV continues to have a disproportionate impact on certain populations, particularly racial and ethnic minorities and gay and bisexual men and other men who have sex with men,” the Kaiser website states.
While AFAN doesn’t provide medical services, it does provide resources to medical practitioners who are well versed in HIV and AIDS treatment. AFAN mainly provides supportive services for the HIV-positive community, including transportation, housing, food, counseling, HIV testing and more.
A positive diagnosis can be scary, but AFAN is there to help people feel less alone and to adjust to new changes. Carrillo says it’s crucial for someone who’s newly diagnosed to contact AFAN, because the group can help people navigate their diagnosis and connect them to necessary services.
“The sooner you’re diagnosed, the sooner you need to be seen by a physician so that you can adhere to medication,” Carrillo says. “They should be able to contact us so we can do an assessment as to what their basic needs are.”
AFAN history in Las Vegas
The first case of AIDS in the United States was reported in 1981. In 1984, AFAN opened as a nonprofit run by volunteers in Las Vegas. At the time, little was known about AIDS, which led to an increase in stigma and homophobia.
“This is our 35th year of providing services to the community that once was shunned and nobody wanted to talk to, that nobody wanted to address,” Carrillo said. “It was started by volunteers, by people who were seeing their loved ones and friends being kicked out of their houses when they were diagnosed in the ‘80s, [who] were living in horrible situations in someone’s garage because everybody was afraid. Essentially, the community got together and [said], ‘We’re going to create our own [services so the] community doesn’t have to face all that discrimination.’ This was the beginning.”
In 1996, the first protease inhibitor was released, marking a monumental development in the treatment of AIDS as these inhibitors targeted protease, the protein HIV needs to replicate. The use of these drugs, in combination with other medications, was referred to as “highly active antiretroviral therapy” or HAART. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, “morbidity and mortality fell almost immediately in the industrialized world.”
Carrillo began working in HIV services in 1994 and remembers a time in the early ‘90s when he attended one or two funerals a week.
“You’d have a group that had 15 people and a week [later] you’d have 12 or 11, and you would be very nervous to ask whether or not the others would show up. It was a challenge … and it was very poignant as to how deadly this [infection] was.”
Today, therapy is less toxic and people with HIV and AIDS are living healthy and fulfilling lives thanks to medical strides.
“It switched from the idea of, ‘I’m diagnosed, I have to think about my funeral, to I have to figure out how I’m going to live.’” Carrillo said. “We have come from … people not wanting to talk to [HIV-positive people], not wanting to touch them, to having people live normal lives as if nothing ever happened — which is exactly what we strive for.”
Despite the fact that people are living longer and better lives, Carrillo is quick to add that there still isn’t a cure for AIDS. In fact, in the United States and in Nevada, reports of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections are on the rise. In 2016, Nevada was the second highest state in the nation for syphilis and Clark County ranked in the top 20 counties for STDs.
“We’re still seeing a rise in the amount of people getting infected [with HIV],” Carrillo said. “If you look at the statistics of new diagnoses in Clark County, in 2017, there were about 430 infections. That tells you more than one person was diagnosed with HIV a day in that year. 2018 doesn’t look much different.”
AIDS and the U.S.
President Donald Trump, in his State of the Union address, included a plan to end HIV by 2030. Yet, in November, the administration proposed a policy that would cut Medicare costs by reducing the availability of HIV-related drugs to Medicare recipients.
And, two months ago, Trump fired all 16 members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. Months prior, six members resigned citing the administration’s “lack of action” regarding HIV, according to Plus magazine.
One of those fired council members, Gabriel Maldonado, told Plus that his role in the committee had focused on “vulnerable populations … diverse communities [and] specifically looking at the impacts of the LGBT community; namely, the disproportionate impact of HIV and AIDS to people of color, gay men [and] transgender women.”
“A lot of those key vulnerable populations are not being prioritized in this administration,” Maldonado told Plus. In 2017, policy analysts for the Centers for Disease Control were given a list of words not to use when preparing the 2018 budget. “Vulnerable,” “transgender” and “diversity,” were on that list.
“When you’re talking about HIV, you’re talking about death,” Carrillo said. “You’re talking about sex. You’re talking about the sex that most people may not be interested in, or aware of, or comfortable understanding or hearing about, or seeing it. And so you’re talking about all those issues that need to be addressed before you think you can eradicate [HIV].”
“If you’re moralizing birth control right now,” he continued, “imagine what happens if you start thinking about moralizing pills for gay men or lesbians or transgender individuals, or people that are addicted to drugs or anybody that has a behavior that puts them at risk for HIV.”
Vice President Mike Pence also has a problematic track record with the HIV-affected community, Carrillo said. “The state of Indiana saw a tremendous rise of HIV infection with intravenous drug users not too long ago,” he added, referring to the then-governor’s delayed response to the outbreak in Scott County from 2014 to 2015.
Combatting the rising risk of HIV
In 2016, HIV was the leading cause of death in the United States for ages 25-34 and 35-44, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“The perception of risk is still very off for a lot of people,” Carrillo said. “They don’t think they’re at risk because they’re not gay or they don’t consider themselves gay and sometimes they think it’s only for drug addicts — but [HIV can affect] anyone.”
So how do we combat the rising risk of STDs and HIV? Carrillo says it starts in the doctor’s office.
“‘Do you have a history of cancer? Have you gotten tested for HIV within the last six months?’ That should just be a question across the board with every service provider you visit.”
Prevention and education are also key.
“[Resources] need to go to prevention, because prevention works,” Carrillo said. And it isn’t just HIV that needs to be addressed. “With the amount of STDS that have been diagnosed here — what that tells me is if people are being diagnosed at that rate with STDS, [then] HIV is right behind it.”
Ending the transmission of HIV and other STDs begins with ending the stigma attached to it, ensuring that people get tested at doctor’s visits (even when they aren’t showing symptoms) and that people are discussing their sexual health — with their doctors and with their partners — regularly. Another step that can be taken is by participating in fundraisers, like AFAN’s Aids Walk, which takes place at Town Square on April 7.
“The AIDS Walk for us is the largest fundraiser we have, but it’s also the biggest display of awareness for HIV [that says] we are here, HIV still affects people,” Carrillo said. “The AIDS Walk, along with other AIDS-related fundraisers, brings that back to reality. We’re not just walking with the dogs and the kids just for the fun of it. AIDS has not gone away, and we still need to raise funds.”
For more information, contact AFAN at 702-382-2326 or visit afanlv.org.