Mazzoni Center was the first AIDS service organization in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the fourth in the United States. Our agency was founded as a small, grassroots, all-volunteer clinic in 1979, a few short years before the first cases of HIV/AIDS began to appear in Philadelphia and around the country. This means that we’ve had a long perspective on AIDS not simply as a medical condition, but as something that may also impact a person’s social, emotional and economic well-being. Our continuum of care has evolved to support in these various needs, including food, housing, mental health and case management, along with quality medical care.
AIDS began as a medical mystery and quickly morphed into a public-health crisis. Specifically, it was a crisis for the gay community, whose members lacked broad support or political power, were often closeted and/or disconnected from family and found themselves suddenly faced with the terror of seeing friends, partners and loved ones dying in the prime of their lives.
Even now, it is shocking to consider the magnitude of loss that HIV/AIDS dealt to the LGBT community. The urgency of dealing with the AIDS crisis, identifying needs and scrambling to provide adequate support shaped everything about our organization in those early years. It galvanized the LGBT community in unprecedented ways and brought to life many critically important organizations providing support and assistance to people impacted by HIV/AIDS, many of which remain our partners and collaborators today.
Protease inhibitors in the mid-1990s brought dramatic advances in treatment of HIV/AIDS, making it possible for an HIV-positive person to enjoy a long and healthy life. And now, with the advent of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), has come a revolutionary tool for prevention, making it entirely possible that we will see the end of AIDS in the near future.
That said, the advances in care and prevention have not translated equally across our communities. Poverty, racism, stigma, inadequate information and unequal access to care have meant that some communities continue to be infected at disproportionate rates, including people of color, young men who have sex with men and transgender women. These same factors lead to unequal outcomes for those living with HIV, here in Philadelphia and around the U.S.
Mazzoni Center is proud of the work we’ve done to engage the LGBT community overall, but we know that we have more work to do to address these disparities and to build relationships with people in the most impacted communities, in particular young MSM (men who have sex with men) of color, along with trans women of color.
One of the ways we are working to achieve this is through our newly launched Navigation Services program, a CDC-funded collaboration with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, and which aims to reduce the amount of new HIV transmissions in the Philadelphia region.
The program provides support to MSM and trans individuals who are at high risk of contracting HIV, including but not limited to initiating PrEP or nPEP; obtaining medical coverage; linkage to medical care; referral to services such as mental health, substance use, educational, vocational and housing, among others.
It’s an intentionally client-centered approach that allows individuals to identify their needs, and then to work one-on-one with a navigation specialist to identify and access resources to meet those needs.
Another key initiative aimed at connecting folks to relevant care and resources in a more effective way is the launching a “PrEP clinic” at the Washington West Project (1201 Locust St.), which we hope to do by the end of this year. The idea would be to connect people who are interested in PrEP but might not otherwise have access or the resources to obtain it, with one of our health-care providers on site. This way they can get their questions answered immediately — and if they wish to obtain a prescription, we can facilitate that process.
Since Washington West is well known in the LGBTQ community and throughout Philadelphia as being accessible and welcoming walk-in site for HIV/STI testing — with no barriers to entry, no cost and no need to make an appointment — we feel it could be an ideal opportunity to close the distance between the person who comes to us with a question and getting that person the resources and connection they may need to access PrEP and anything else that may help keep them healthy, supported and well-informed.
Thirty years into the HIV/AIDS epidemic, we know that the overall outlook has dramatically improved, but too many people continue to face barriers to accessing resources and achieving the outcomes that we know are possible.
With many things hanging in the balance right now, we need to work harder than ever to help people surmount those barriers, build a healthier, more informed and inclusive community and ultimately to realize a world without HIV/AIDS.
Elisabeth Flynn is senior communications manager at Mazzoni Center.