At 114 cases per 100,000, Philadelphians are living with HIV at five times the national average rate.
Currently, 19,199 residents are living with HIV, according to a Department of Health report on the most recent data. Youth ages 13-24 accounted for more than 26 percent of new diagnoses in 2017.
To help combat the high rate of infection, health services nonprofit Philadelphia FIGHT Community Health Centers will hold the HIV Prevention and Education Summit on June 11 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The conference, part of the organization’s 25th-annual AIDS Education Month event series, aims to inform people about the disease and issues those living with it experience.
Attendees can learn about the latest treatment options, research, prevention and outreach strategies. They can also explore how HIV and AIDS intersect with other societal issues, including substance use, spirituality and sex work.
“It’s a plethora of information that’s offered at this summit, so that people walk away feeling informed but also empowered and hopeful about the trajectory of the research and what’s happening in the world of HIV and AIDS,” said Tashina Okorie, FIGHT’s program director of professional and community training.
The conference is organized by FIGHT’s Community Health Training Alliance, a professional and community training initiative launched in January 2018. The project organizes workshops, webinars, symposiums and other events to educate people on public health topics like the opioid epidemic, Hepatitis C, trauma-informed care and HIV and AIDS.
Naina Khanna, executive director of the Positive Women’s Network, a national membership organization for women living with HIV and their allies, will be the summit’s keynote speaker. Khanna has worked in the HIV field since 2005, following her own 2002 diagnosis.
This will be the first year the nonprofit will offer a youth-specific educational track at the event, Okorie said. It will feature a series of workshops for those ages 13-18.
Okorie said it is especially important for youth in Philadelphia to receive sexual health education given the city’s high rate of HIV infection in the age group.
“Sometimes parents may opt to not talk about it, or the kids may learn from their friends or in their communities and it might not always be the correct information,” Okorie said.
“We wanted to create a safe space at the summit where youth can come and receive the education that they need around different topics like sexting...body autonomy and body safety,” she added.
This year’s summit will be the most interactive its ever been, Okorie said. It will feature a research lab, presentations from those working in the field and opportunities to learn about consent forms, lesser-known, disease-related vocabulary and other hands-on learning opportunities.
Gay and bisexual men are the population most affected by HIV, according to HIV.gov, a website run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. These groups made up 66 percent of all new diagnoses in 2017 and 82 percent of diagnoses among men.
While the stigma around HIV and AIDS has lessened over time, particularly within the LGBTQ community, there is still more to be done, said Kyle Chvasta, public programs associate at FIGHT.
“We’re coming up into a time when we’re approaching a possible cure and research is going into that,” he said. “Folks who have lost loved ones or friends, they feel a sense of survivor’s guilt.”
To address this, the LGBT Elder Initiative will present an educational track on HIV and aging at the summit.
Chvasta said he hopes people attending the summit leave knowing something about HIV and AIDS they were previously unaware of.
“Oftentimes, we speak in an echo chamber or we preach to the choir, but what we’re able to do at this summit is be able to provide new and exciting intervention methods,” he said, “be it research findings or community-based programs that people haven’t heard of to provide vital health information that they didn’t know before.”