There’s life after HIV, and Oakland’s La Clínica de la Raza offers an array of programs to improve the physical, psychological and social well-being of men and women living with the virus, by providing a safe environment for people to share their experiences.
The effort to control and treat HIV/AIDS is a constant battle in Alameda County. There, over 5,600 people were living with HIV or AIDS by the end of 2013, according to the most recent data from the HIV Epidemiology and Surveillance Unit at the Alameda County Public Health Department.
Oakland had the highest proportion of people living with HIV or AIDS in the County, at 57 percent. From 2011 to 2013 alone, there were 349 new HIV diagnoses in Oakland, -53 percent of all new diagnoses in the County.
Worldwide, the HIV pandemic has so far affected more than 75 million, according to UNAIDS, a unit of the United Nations dedicated to the disease. In the United States, over 1.1 million people are currently infected with HIV, and around one in five of them are unaware they have the virus.
La Clínica, a network of 40 primary healthcare service centers in Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano Counties, served over 91,000 patients and provided around 430,000 patient visits in 2013. A key goal of La Clínica is to get patients into early medical treatment for HIV to prevent them from progressing to full-blown AIDS, when the disease is much harder to treat.
“Most of the people diagnosed now will live a good life, with daily dosages of medicine,” said Scott Carroll, a 20-year veteran of HIV test counseling who serves as HIV Prevention Services Supervisor for La Clínica. “But they will live,” Carroll said. “That wasn’t the case before.”
At the clinic, the challenge is twofold. In addition to discrimination faced by all people with HIV, Carroll said, immigrants with the virus lack access to correct information or resources to guide them through their disease.
Inside a modest wood-shingled house with a rainbow flag, La Clínica’s Community Health Education (Casa CHE) has since 1999 served as a gathering place for HIV- positive Latina women meeting as part of the Alianza Latina en Marcha Contra el SIDA (ALMAS), or Alliance of Women on the March Against AIDS.
Casa CHE also houses the De Colores program, meaning “In Colors” or “Colorful,” which targets young gay men; and a program especially designed for couples.
However, the clinic until recently didn’t have a place where Latino men living with HIV could meet, nor anyplace where they could speak about it in Spanish.
To fill the gap, Casa CHE in April launched a new support group for men who are both HIV positive and Spanish–speaking. While ALMAS gathers about 40 women over the year, this new program – so far unnamed – has gathered about a dozen men of diverse ages and backgrounds, ranging from teens to the elderly since its launch.
For three hours every month, the men discuss health issues, medication, depression, stress and family. They talk about “how to have a better life,” said health educator Agripina Alejandres, who leads the Latino groups and has been working at Casa CHE for almost two years.
La Clínica has had 54 HIV positive individuals participate in its social events since March of 2014, regardless of whether or not they are La Clínica patients. La Clínica declined requests to speak with HIV-positive clients, citing concerns about confidentiality and privacy.
The men’s and women’s groups focus on “reducing depression, increasing self-esteem, and preventing people from going to the hospital because of mental health,” said Carroll.
This group aims to work as a safety net because “you can have many friends but there are things that you won’t be able to tell them,” Alejandres said. The idea is to involve the families of HIV positive individuals in activities such as a rafting trip for Spanish-speakers, and another for gay and bisexual men of color under 30 years old.
Casa CHE’s heath educators are also planning hiking trips, movie nights and an HIV positive dance club.
Talking, sharing and learning are vital functions of the group, which aims to publicize services that are underused by patients “because they don’t know they exist,” she said.
One of the most delicate services addresses a patient’s concern that he or she may have infected a former partner. “There are many people who do not want to communicate,” Carroll said. In such cases, La Clínica will help the county contact the person, while keeping the patient anonymous.
If a patient wants to talk directly with their partner, health educators there can “coach” patients about the ways to initiate the conversation, Carroll said.
“Most of the people living with HIV don’t want anyone to know,” Alejandres said, “because stigmatization remains.”