World AIDS Day Finds LA County 'At A Crossroads' Over Infection Rates, Testing

On World AIDS Day, LA 'Is At A Crossroads'

Several events in observance of World AIDS Day will be held across Los Angeles County on Sunday, including a gospel concert, free HIV testing and gatherings to remember those who have died from the disease and those still struggling to survive.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of World AIDS Day, a global effort founded on Dec. 1, 1988, by two public-information officers from the World Health Organization. The goal was to raise awareness about the AIDS pandemic. About 35 million people have died of AIDS over the past two decades.

An estimated 35 million people now live with HIV worldwide, although the rate of infection has declined globally by 30 percent, according to the World Health Organization.

While World AIDS Day began as a day of remembrance and awareness, the observance has evolved into a worldwide campaign to encourage HIV testing and eradicate transmission.

Locally, however, challenges remain.

"Los Angeles County is at a crossroads," according to a report released in March. "The disease burden for HIV is increasing steadily, as people living with HIV are living longer and an estimated 1,500 to 2,500 people are newly infected annually."

About 58,000 people live with HIV in L.A. County, deemed the second largest epicenter of HIV/AIDS in the United States. The rate of infection is especially troublesome among men having sex with men and Latino and African-American women and men, according to recent data from the county Department of Public Health. Those living with HIV also are aging, with at least 38 percent now 50 and older, while another 36 percent are 40 to 49.

Leaders who have worked within the AIDS/HIV community for decades say efforts to encourage HIV testing and to normalize the disease within the broader community need renewed attention.

"We're looking more for people to test, and if they test positive, to get them into care as soon as possible," said Richard Zaldivar, executive director and founder of the Wall-Las Memorias Project. It was founded on December 1, 1993, when HIV/AIDS was considered a stigma within the Latino community. A wall with the names of those who have died of AIDS and a memorial were later built in Lincoln Park.

The trouble lies in reaching those who are HIV positive and who don't know they have it, Zaldivar noted.

"Back in the 1980s, AIDS was ghettoized," he said. "We knew where the epidemic was. We knew where to do the outreach. Now the target population is integrated into everyday fabrics of society. It makes it a lot more difficult to do outreach."

Another challenge is complacency in society, as well as contradictory advertising targeting young gay men, he added.

"The community as a whole needs to understand where the epidemic is today," Zaldivar said. "Until we do that, you can have great programs, but we're not going to have the impact until you normalize HIV and know where the epidemic is."

A recent report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that unprotected sex among young men having sex with men increased by 20 percent in 2011, the last year for which data was available.

Such statistics show that while more people are living with HIV, work must continue to stop transmission.

"As a community, we have to stand at the front lines," said Anthony Marshall of AIDS Healthcare Foundation. "Our young community wasn't there to see what happened in the 1980s. Now that time has passed, and treatment has been so far advanced, that harshness and the reality of the matter has washed away from their minds. We're hoping to educate them, to make them understand it only takes one time of unprotected sex." ___

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