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D.C. prepares to host Int’l AIDS Conference

Event expected to draw more than 30,000 to city from July 22-27

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Gay News, Washington Blade, HIV/AIDS

Julie Scofield, executive director of the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (Blade photo by Michael Key)

The International AIDS Conference is expected to draw more than 30,000 people from around the world to D.C. July 22-27.

Former President Bill Clinton, former first lady Laura Bush, Bill Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Eric Goosby, “The View” co-host Whoopi Goldberg and singer Elton John are among those who are scheduled to speak at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. The White House has yet to confirm whether President Obama will attend; California Rep. Barbara Lee and Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS, are among those who are scheduled to speak at the opening session on July 22. The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington is also slated to perform.

“We are gathering at a defining moment in the AIDS epidemic where the science tells us we can turn the tide on HIV,” said Dr. Elly Katabira, president of the International AIDS Society who serves as the conference’s international chair, and Dr. Diane Havlir of the University of California-San Francisco, who is the U.S. co-chair of AIDS 2012, in a statement that officially welcomed delegates to the nation’s capital. “Scientific advances are also propelling towards the efforts to find a cure and vaccine for HIV. AIDS 2012 will unite science, community and leadership from around the globe to develop strategies and mobilize support for translating new evidence into meaningful action that reflects HIV’s complex web of social, human rights and political issues.”

The conference — the theme of which is “Turning the Tide Together” — will feature a number of workshops and other events that will specifically discuss the epidemic’s impact among men who have sex with men and other LGBT communities. These will include networking spaces in the Global Village that will allow LGBT people and MSM to share strategies to more effectively respond to HIV and advocate on behalf of those living with the virus. “The Lancet” will also present a symposium on the epidemic’s impact among MSM on July 24.

Debbie McMillan of Transgender Health Empowerment will be among the panelists on a July 26 plenary that will examine the virus’ effects on at-risk populations. A symposium on the same day will discuss the future of HIV prevention and related health and human rights issues among gay, transgender and MSM communities.

The Blade is also an official media sponsor of the conference and will host a photo exhibit chronicling AIDS in Washington in the Global Village, which is open to the public.

A call to action

The International AIDS Society and the University of California-San Francisco on Tuesday unveiled a nine-point plan designed to further combat the global epidemic.

The “Washington, D.C., Declaration” specifically calls for an end to stigma, discrimination and human rights abuses against people with the virus and those who remain at-risk for HIV. It backs what it describes as evidence-based prevention, treatment and care that respects the human rights of “those at greatest risk and in greatest need.” The declaration further stresses the need for accelerated research on new HIV prevention initiatives, treatments and a vaccine.

UNAIDS noted in its 2010 report that an estimated 33.3 million people around the world live with HIV. The agency further reported that the number of new infections has fallen 19 percent since 1999. UNAIDS also found that 5.2 million of the estimated 15 million people with the virus in developing countries who need antiretroviral treatment receive it.

“In a scenario unthinkable just a few years ago, we now have the knowledge to begin to end AIDS in our lifetimes,” said Katabira, professor of medicine at Uganda’s Makerere University. “Yet, at this moment of extraordinary scientific progress and potential, the global response to AIDS faces crippling financial challenges that threaten past success and future progress. Through this declaration, we stand together to call on world leaders across all sectors to provide increased resources, visionary leadership and a full-fledged commitment to seize the opportunity before us.”

This year marks the first time since 1990 that the International AIDS Conference has taken place in the United States—President Obama in 2009 completed the process that lifted the ban on people with HIV from entering the country. City officials and HIV/AIDS service providers alike plan to use the biennial gathering to highlight local efforts to combat the epidemic.

D.C. Officials, HIV/AIDS groups seek presence at conference

The Department of Health’s HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, Sexually Transmitted Disease and Tuberculosis Administration will present 15 scientific abstracts on the epidemic during the conference. The D.C. Center for AIDS Research, the body that coordinates HIV/AIDS-specific research in Washington, will highlight city-based research in a Global Village session. Mayor Vincent Gray is among those who will speak at a Memorial AIDS Quilt ceremony on July 22.

“It’s appropriate that AIDS 2012 is taking place in the District, its first return to the U.S. in 22 years, as the District has in so many ways been the face of our nation’s epidemic,” said D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At Large.) “From years of an inadequate and failed response to now, an increasingly effective and aggressive one, the District embodies the varied and diverse experience our nation has endured with the deadly disease. AIDS2012 will be a fantastic opportunity for the District to showcase its innovative prevention and treatment programs for the best and brightest in the field. The District stands as an example of what can occur when data-driven, evidence-based policies are put in place.”

Whitman-Walker Health will hold a forum on the state of the epidemic at the Lisner Auditorium, where the city’s first AIDS forum took place in 1983, on July 24. Metro Teen AIDS and Us Helping Us have also scheduled a series of events to coincide with the conference. Organizers have also organized tours of Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, Food and Friends, La Clinica del Pueblo and other D.C. HIV/AIDS service organizations for delegates.

“We are pleased and honored to have the International AIDS Conference come to D.C.,” Dr. Ray Martins, chief medical officer at Whitman-Walker, told the Blade. “The conference gives the world a chance to learn more about the state of HIV/AIDS in the District of Columbia, but also the breadth of the response to the epidemic locally. It will allow us to highlight the tremendous efforts made by outreach workers and volunteers as well as health care providers and our elected officials.”

A number of gatherings, panels and other events will also take place throughout the city in the days leading up to the conference. These include the Gay Men’s Health Summit at George Washington University and the Global Forum on MSM and HIV on July 21, a panel on stigma in transgender and other HIV-vulnerable communities at the Human Rights Campaign on July 21 and Youth Force’s annual conference at Gallaudet University in Northeast Washington from July 17-19 and the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV/AIDS’ conference at Howard University from July 17-19.

“It’s really an incredible event, so I’m glad it’s coming back here,” Ron Simmons, president of Us Helping Us, told the Blade. “With the eyes of the world focused on you, this is the time to take advantage of it.”

Calls to bolster response to domestic epidemic

HIV/AIDS activists also plan to use the conference to urge lawmakers in this country and around the world to reaffirm their commitment to ending the epidemic.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, journalist Tavis Smiley and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young are among those scheduled to speak at the “Keep the Promise” March that will wind its way from the Washington Monument to the intersections of 3rd Street, N.W., and Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues, N.W., on July 22. Members of the We Can End AIDS coalition told the Blade earlier this month that they plan to hold a five-point march on July 24 that organizers said could end in acts of non-violent civil disobedience.

Policy makers also plan to urge Congress to adequately fund policies they say effectively combat the domestic epidemic.

“When people think of AIDS today, most probably don’t realize that AIDS is still really in a crisis mode in our country,” said Carl Schmid, deputy executive director at the AIDS Institute, during a press conference at the National Press Club in D.C. on Tuesday. He noted that 20 percent of the 1.2 million Americans with HIV today do not know their status. Schmid also pointed to roughly 50,000 new diagnoses each year. “Many, including our youth, have become complacent. With nearly 40 percent of new infections occurring in those under age 29 and with more HIV in our country than ever before, it is imperative that we raise our country’s consciousness.”

President Obama in 2010 unveiled a National HIV/AIDS Strategy that seeks to reduce rates of HIV and HIV-related health disparities and increase access to care for people with the virus.

Under the White House’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2013, funding for HIV prevention programs would increase by $40 million. The president also seeks a $75 million increase in funding for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program under the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Response Emergency Act.

Julie Scofield, executive director of the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, applauded the Obama administration for what she described during the National Press Club press conference as its ongoing commitment to fight the domestic epidemic. She stressed, however, that federal funding has not kept pace with the needs of those with HIV.

“It has always been important to acknowledge from the very beginning of this fight that the goals of the strategy cannot be achieved without significant increases in funding for critical domestic HIV/AIDS discretionary programs,” said Scofield.

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Should we vacation in homophobic countries?

Secret gay bar in St. Petersburg seemed unfathomable

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(Image by Askonsat Uanthoeng via Pexels)

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — The tiny rainbow light projecting onto the corner baseboard of the bar and tipsy people constantly belting out Mariah Carey karaoke songs clued me in. There was something unique happening here. It wasn’t until a gentleman with glittered cheeks approached me to say how fabulous my dress was that I suddenly clocked it. I’d unknowingly ended up in a gay bar in the middle of Saint Petersburg, Russia.

A flood of overwhelming joy first took over. Before coming to Russia on vacation, I knew all too well the discrimination and fear LGBTQ Russians lived in. A gay bar in Russia, even a secret one like this, seemed unfathomable, so being where people could unapologetically be out and proud — even if it was only in the compounds of these four walls — was emotionally profound.

But within seconds, dread took over. Were we all safe? If you didn’t know what to look out for, you’d assume this was just like every other neighboring non-gay bar — it wasn’t hidden or anything. I wondered what was stopping a homophobe, if they found out, from vandalizing the bar or doing something much worse.

After all, Russia approved a legislation in 2013 prohibiting the distribution of information about LGBTQ matters and relationships to minors. The legislation, known as the “gay propaganda law,” specifies that any act or event that authorities believe promotes homosexuality to individuals under the age of 18 is a punishable felony. According to a 2018 report by the international rights organization Human Rights Watch, anti-LGBTQ violence in the country spiked after it passed. The bill perpetuates the state’s discriminatory ideology that LGBTQ individuals are a “danger” to traditional Russian family values.

A recent poll indicated that roughly one-fifth of Russians want to “eliminate” gay and lesbian individuals from society. In a poll conducted by the Russian LGBT Network — a Russian queer advocacy group — 56 percent of LGBTQ respondents said they had been subjected to psychological abuse, and disturbing reports of state-sanctioned detention and torture of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya, a semi-autonomous Russian region, have surfaced in recent years.

Considering this, it was no surprise that most of my gay friends refused to come on vacation with me to Russia. In our everyday, gay people don’t march around with a gay Pride flag so homophobic Russians would probably never be able to tell which tourists are gay. However, many LGBTQ people will never travel to Russia or any other homophobic country for one logical reason: Fear.

Unfortunately, many exotic locations abroad are dangerous territory for the LGBTQ community to be in. Physical safety isn’t guaranteed in countries like Nigeria, Iran, Brunei and Saudi Arabia where same-sex relationships are punishable by the death penalty. Not to mention the numerous transgender people who’ve been detained and refused entry to similar countries — even when it’s only been a layover! However, an alternative reason why someone may refuse to vacation in a homophobic country is having a conscience.

When you pay for accommodation, nights out and sightseeing tours, your money doesn’t just reach the hotel staff and waiters pockets — you’re also financially supporting that country’s government. Money talks so not giving homophobic countries tourism puts pressure on them. Ethically, why would anybody ever want to support a country through tourism that treats their LGBTQ community like dirt? Homophobia shouldn’t be shrugged off simply as a local “culture.”

Other LGBTQ people firmly embrace the right to go anywhere they choose, and that choosing to go gives them power. Homophobic countries still have closeted LGBTQ folks living there running underground gay spaces and groups. Is turning our back on the wonderful people and beautiful culture of a new place turning our back on their gay community too? There are countries where gay marriage is legal and trans rights are progressive, but abortion laws remain backwards. Do we boycott these countries too? And, how do we collectively define what a homophobic country is? Is legalizing gay marriage a requisite? Gay marriage is still illegal in Thailand when it is one of the most gay and trans-friendly countries in the world.

Increasingly the line of what is “right” and “wrong” erases all grey areas. Morality and activism — particularly when politics is involved — is never straightforward. The biggest surprise about Russia was how my own stereotypes I’d picked up from the media weren’t always true. Saint Petersburg in Russia is far more liberal and gay-friendly compared to rural Russia but the fact still stands that my bisexual friend and I actively chose to go to a homophobic country for pleasure. In an ideal world, anybody of any sexual orientation or gender identity would be able to vacation wherever they want but that’s sadly not reality. In the meantime, the wanderlust LGBTQ community will go on gay cruises that guarantee safe refuge or put civil rights and ideological differences aside to experience the world’s natural wonders and incredible cultures.

Ash Potter is a writer and radio host.

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Health

FDA approves injectable PrEP to reduce the risk of sexual HIV infection

Manufactured as Apretude, it will be available to at-risk adults & adolescents who weigh at least 77 pounds & have tested negative for HIV

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FDA headquarters, Silver Spring, MD (Photo Credit: U.S. government/FDA)

SILVER SPRING, Md. – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Monday that the agency had approved the first injectable treatment for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to reduce the risk of sexually acquired HIV.

Manufactured under the name Apretude, it will be available to at-risk adults and adolescents who weigh at least 77 pounds and have tested negative for HIV immediately beforehand the agency said in a press release.

By granting its approval, the FDA opens up the option for patients to receive the injectable drug instead of a daily HIV prevention oral medication, such as Truvada.

“Today’s approval adds an important tool in the effort to end the HIV epidemic by providing the first option to prevent HIV that does not involve taking a daily pill,” said Debra Birnkrant, M.D., director of the Division of Antivirals in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “This injection, given every two months, will be critical to addressing the HIV epidemic in the U.S., including helping high-risk individuals and certain groups where adherence to daily medication has been a major challenge or not a realistic option.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, notable gains have been made in increasing PrEP use for HIV prevention in the U.S. and preliminary data show that in 2020, about 25% of the 1.2 million people for whom PrEP is recommended were prescribed it, compared to only about 3% in 2015.

However, there remains significant room for improvement. PrEP requires high levels of adherence to be effective and certain high-risk individuals and groups, such as young men who have sex with men, are less likely to adhere to daily medication.

Other interpersonal factors, such as substance use disorders, depression, poverty and efforts to conceal medication also can impact adherence. It is hoped that the availability of a long-acting injectable PrEP option will increase PrEP uptake and adherence in these groups.

The safety and efficacy of Apretude to reduce the risk of acquiring HIV were evaluated in two randomized, double-blind trials that compared Apretude to Truvada, a once daily oral medication for HIV PrEP.

Trial 1 included HIV-uninfected men and transgender women who have sex with men and have high-risk behavior for HIV infection. Trial 2 included uninfected cisgender women at risk of acquiring HIV.

Participants who took Apretude started the trial with cabotegravir (oral, 30 mg tablet) and a placebo daily for up to five weeks, followed by Apretude 600mg injection at months one and two, then every two months thereafter and a daily placebo tablet.

Participants who took Truvada started the trial taking oral Truvada and placebo daily for up to five weeks, followed by oral Truvada daily and placebo intramuscular injection at months one and two and every two months thereafter.

In Trial 2, 3,224 cisgender women received either Apretude or Truvada. The trial measured the rate of HIV infections in participants who took oral cabotegravir and injections of Apretude compared to those who took Truvada orally.

The trial showed participants who took Apretude had 90% less risk of getting infected with HIV when compared to participants who took Truvada.

Apretude includes a boxed warning to not use the drug unless a negative HIV test is confirmed. It must only be prescribed to individuals confirmed to be HIV-negative immediately prior to starting the drug and before each injection to reduce the risk of developing drug resistance.

Drug-resistant HIV variants have been identified in people with undiagnosed HIV when they use Apretude for HIV PrEeP. Individuals who become infected with HIV while receiving Apretude for PrEP must transition to a complete HIV treatment regimen.

The drug labeling also includes warnings and precautions regarding hypersensitivity reactions, hepatotoxicity (liver damage) and depressive disorders.

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Health

FDA slow in responding to calls for end to ban on MSM tissue donors

‘Scientific evidence does not support these restrictions’

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Tammy Baldwin, gay news, Washington Blade
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) is a lead signer of the letter to the FDA. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

As of early this week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had yet to respond to a Nov. 29 joint letter by 52 members of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate calling on the FDA to end its policy of restricting the donation of human tissues such as corneas, heart valves, skin, and other tissue by men who have sex with men, or MSM.

The letter is addressed to Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. The FDA is an agency within the HHS.

The letter says the FDA’s restrictions on MSM tissue donation date back to a 1994 U.S. Public Health Service “guidance” related to the possible transmission of HIV, which stated that any man “who has had sex with another man in the preceding five years” should be disqualified from tissue donation.

“We also call your attention to the broad consensus within the medical community indicating that the current scientific evidence does not support these restrictions,” the letter states. “We have welcomed the FDA’s recent steps in the right direction to address its discriminatory MSM blood donation policies and urge you to take similar actions to revise the agency’s tissue donation criteria to align with current science so as not to unfairly stigmatize gay and bisexual men.”

The letter adds, “In fact, a recent study in the medical journal JAMA Ophthalmology estimated that between 1,558 and 3,217 corneal donations are turned away annually from otherwise eligible donors who are disqualified because of their sexual orientation, an unacceptable figure given widespread shortages of transplantable corneas.”

The letter continues, saying, “FDA policy should be derived from the best available science, not historic bias and prejudice. As with blood donation, we believe that any deferral policies should be based on individualized risk assessment rather than a categorical, time-based deferral that perpetuates stigma.”

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), the nation’s only out lesbian U.S. senator, and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) are the two lead signers of the letter. All 52 signers of the letter are Democrats.

Among the others who signed their names to the FDA letter are four of the nine openly gay or lesbian members of the U.S. House. They include Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Richie Torres (D-N.Y.), Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), and Mark Takano (D-Calif.). 

Also signing the letter are D.C. Congressional Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.). 

In response to a Dec. 21 email inquiry from the Washington Blade, FDA Press Officer Abigail Capobianco sent the Blade a one-sentence statement saying, “The FDA will respond to the letter directly.”

The statement didn’t say to whom the FDA would respond or when it would issue its response.

https://neguse.house.gov/imo/media/doc/FINAL%20-%20Letter%20to%20FDA%20and%20HHS%20on%20Corneal%20Tissue%20Donations.pdf

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