For every 1,000 Austin residents, four are living with AIDS, making the West Side one of the highest area communities impacted by the disease. But several community groups have teamed up to reverse those numbers. The South Austin Community Coalition Council, the Westside Health Authority, Haymarket Center and Test Positive Aware Network this weekend are providing free and anonymous HIV/AIDS testing through a mobile outreach program.
The “Taking it to the Streets” campaign dispatches a mobile HIV testing van to known hot spots for drugs and prostitution. The program’s goal is to provide testing, counseling and HIV prevention services to at-risk populations.
“Austin is identified as one of the higher risk communities,” said Richard Wallace, a TPAN outreach worker. He noted that two out of three new AIDS cases citywide are black women. And according to the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH), 482 Austin residents are living with AIDS as of December 2006. The Austin community has the fourth highest AIDS prevalence rate of 410.1 percent, according to CDPH statistics. East Garfield comes in first with 823.7 percent, followed by West Garfield, 556.1 percent, and North Lawndale, 431 percent. Humboldt Park rounds out the top five with 405.6 percent.
Poverty, Wallace contends, contributes to the West Side’s high prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Most communities with high poverty levels experience increased incidence of diabetes, hepatitis and HIV infections, he added.
“If you look up and down the streets, there aren’t that many job opportunities … so a lot of people turn to high-risk behaviors in order to maintain funding,” Wallace said.
The program targets intravenous drug users and commercial sex workers, but it specifically targets the men having sex with men (MSM) trade.
“You have this MSM population who don’t consider themselves gay, but are having sex with men as well as having sex with their spouses,” said SACCC activist Elce Redmond. “Those are the ones who are not going in for testing and spreading it even more.”
To reach that population, the campaign offers HIV testing in those areas where they congregate. Redmond noted hot spots include Central Avenue and Lake Street, an area known for drugs and prostitution. Last month, the program tested 25 people from that area and distributed 400 HIV/AIDS prevention packets that included condoms, a resource guide and HIV/AIDS prevention materials.
The group hopes for the same success when vans hit the corner of Lake and Laramie on Friday, July 25 from 1-5 p.m. Free refreshments will also be provided. Those seeking testing will be given the oral quick test, where the inside of the mouth is swabbed. Results are back in 20 minutes.
Redmond noted that the high number of those tested last month shows that people want to know their status, but opportunities for testing are lacking on the West Side.
“That is why we got this outreach where we come out on the corner, [serve] some hotdogs and refreshments for people and encourage them to get tested,” Redmond said.
“If people are not going to come to you, you got to go to them.” Wallace agreed. HIV/AIDS prevention begins with education and access to testing facilities, he said, adding that many people don’t know where to go to get tested. The program offers on-site pre- and post-counseling to help individuals identify safer sex practices, risky behaviors and ways to minimize those behaviors.
“If more people knew their status … they would know what to do to protect themselves,” Wallace said.