Houstonians Brave the Rain for Annual AIDS Walk
Nearly 3,000 Houstonians braved the rain Sunday to support the 28th annual AIDS Walk Houston “Red Umbrella Stroll” at the historic Sam Houston Park. The walk, hosted by the AIDS Foundation Houston, is intended to raise awareness of the disease and remember those who died of it.
Twenty-eight years ago, not much was known about HIV and AIDS in Houston, the United States or the world. It was a disease killing many and leaving few answers. In the beginning, the AIDS Walk Houston served as a way of healing for those impacted by the disease.
Today, more is known about the disease, but once diagnosed, many patients are left to deal with lifestyle and health changes, as well as the stigma attached to the disease.
“I think the stigma is the number one reason why we still have HIV/AIDS in our community,” said Kelly Young, CEO of AIDS Foundation Houston. “If we could end up talking about HIV/AIDS the way we talk about heart disease and diabetes around the dinner table, then people wouldn’t be so afraid to go out and get tested for fear of how they will be judged.”
While we have come a long way in understanding and treating the disease, there is still work to be done toward eradicating it. There are currently 30,000 Houstonians living with HIV/AIDS.
“HIV/AIDS is very much a southern epidemic. New infections are mainly occurring in the southern states and we want to be the first city who figures out how to combat it in a way to drastically lower the rate of infections in the south,” Young said.
To achieve this goal, the AIDS Foundation partners with a number of local community organizations to help those infected. The annual walk raises funds to help these groups provide medical care, counseling, job training, education, food and housing to people suffering from the HIV/AIDS. For the first time, this year Harris Health System’s Thomas Street Health Center is one of the organizations that will benefit.
“Thomas Street is one of the first and premier HIV clinics in the United States,” Young said. “For us, as a social service provider, we have a very special relationship with the clinic that provides people care on the medical side and we can provide care such as housing, food, advocacy and support. We would be absolutely nowhere in the work with HIV/AIDS without Thomas Street.”
Opened in 1989, Thomas Street Health Center was the first freestanding clinic in the country to offer outpatient care specifically for patients diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Today, the clinic offers a complete health care home to 6,000 Houstonians currently living with the disease. Those services include primary care, oncology, pain management, women’s and adolescent health care, management of hepatitis C, psychiatry and counseling services, and more.
“We have 20 clinics within Thomas Street that offer all of the specialty care that a patient will need. Our doctors are excellent, and we have both medical schools—UTHealth and Baylor—here for our patients,” said Ken Malone, HIV testing project coordinator at Harris Health.
Since its inception, the Thomas Street Health Center has been on the forefront of caring for those infected with HIV/AIDS, and they have made testing for the disease a standard procedure.
“When I started at Harris Health, we established a new testing program for HIV/AIDS called ‘Routine Universal Screening for HIV,’” Malone said. “We make it a routine practice throughout Harris Health to test patients for HIV/AIDS unless the patient opts out, and we have now done over 600,000 tests.”
According to Malone, one of the biggest problems facing the Thomas Street patient population is poverty—transportation issues, access to healthy food and living conditions all impact the ability of the patients to stay healthy.
“We plan to use the money raised from the walk to help our patients in many areas of their lives, whether it be money for a cab ride to get to their appointments instead of taking a two-hour bus ride or a gift card for groceries—we think that is the best way to help them and we hope to be here for them when they need us,” Malone said.
In spite of the rain, this year’s walk was a great success. Mayor Sylvester Turner kicked off the walk and passionate supporters of the AIDS Foundation Houston walked to raise awareness and money to benefit local HIV/AIDS organizations. In addition to the walk, participants enjoyed food trucks and live entertainment.
“My goal is to work myself out of a job,” Young said. “We have the ability to reduce transmission, and I want individuals who are HIV positive to be able to live healthy, stigma-free lives. I don’t want to be here 50 years from now having this same conversation and organizing a walk—my goal is to get to the point where we have zero cases.”