AFAN reaches out to communities of color: A Conversation with AFAN Representative Derek Washington
In the words of its mission statement, Aid for AIDS of Nevada exists to “provide support and advocacy for adults and children living with and affected by HIV/AIDS in Southern Nevada.”
As part of that calling, the organization is stepping up outreach in the African-American and Latino communities, working, as its website outlines, “to reduce HIV infection through prevention education to eliminate fear, prejudice, and the stigma associated with the disease.”
With World AIDS Day approaching on Dec. 1, Black Image spoke with Derek Washington, AFAN’s new media and diversity outreach representative, about the realities of HIV/AIDS in Las Vegas.
What is the AFAN program all about?
AFAN has always served Southern Nevada with HIV/AIDS support and education services. Now, there is an aggressive outreach to the African-American and Latino communities as it relates to the disease, because people (of color) in Nevada are dying at an alarming rate that is disproportionate to their population.
How many African-Americans in Nevada have HIV/AIDS?
We don’t have updated numbers currently, but I can tell you that the vast majority of new cases of HIV/AIDS in Nevada are people of color.
What are your thoughts about the belief, held by many, that only gay people can contract HIV?
AIDS is the No. 1 killer of young black women in America. Therefore, anyone who thinks it is just a gay disease is doing a disservice to the community.
Are the modern HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns impacting the youth of today?
In my personal opinion, I think young people have to be reached in a different way than has been done in the past. The young people of today didn’t see the deaths in such large numbers that took place in the 1980s. Therefore, the urgency is not visible in the way of prevention. We have to reach them in a different way. Maybe we will have to reach our youth through nontraditional methods — such as through the hip-hop community, the church and the barbershop. The first thing I did when I started working with AFAN was to go to the black faith community and tell them I needed their help.
How did that work out?
To be honest, I was expecting to be rebuffed. On the contrary, I was greeted with open arms by the black church community.
Why don’t we hear as much today about deaths due to AIDS?
It has become more of a chronic disease — like diabetes (for example). The problem is that black people tend not to take care of their health on a regular basis … . As a result, by the time they find out they have AIDS, the disease has advanced and is much harder to control. This is a result of black people not having regular healthcare. So, even though people are not dying as often as they used to, the people that are dying are black people.
How has Magic Johnson positively or negatively affected the fight against AIDS?
My personal opinion is that his message could use some improvement, because I hear people say, “Magic Johnson doesn’t have HIV anymore.” That is not true. Something about what he is saying is not getting through to the people. He needs to be clear that you still have to deal with HIV every single day — and probably at night. I was diagnosed with HIV in 2006, and every night I deal with night sweats and every day I deal with taking pills. Just because you are not actively sick doesn’t mean that you don’t have the disease. People in the black community are getting the wrong impression from Magic. I would like to see him be a lot clearer about the stage of his HIV.
Is condom use still a cardinal rule of HIV prevention?
I am a firm believer in building self-esteem and practicing abstinence. Yes, the condom is still paramount if you are having sex — especially, if you are not in a committed relationship where both partners have been tested. As it relates to our young women, we have to assist with building their self-esteem, and they will resist unprotected sex. We promote living a positive life and making good decisions.
Do you see a change in sexual behavior in the gay community?
Once again, we have a young generation of men who have not really experienced death from AIDS, like in the 1980s. We are seeing a lot of STDs, (particularly) syphilis. The rate of HIV infection is rising and it is just bad. That means that the all-around message has to get better. AFAN is making an effort to spread the word to people to protect self and take care of self.
Does AFAN provide any financial assistance for HIV/AIDS patients who don’t have health insurance?
Without AFAN, I would have been lost when I found out I was HIV-positive. AFAN takes you through the entire process for applying for financial assistance, getting healthy food, and making sure you get your medicines. Also, there are a lot of classes to help you deal with the disease. The staff at AFAN is really dedicated to making sure you get the best possible care.
For additional information, call Derek Washington at 702-382-2326 or go online to www.afanlv.org