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    ‘Ms. Meta’ on frontline, empowering others facing HIV in Baton Rouge

    Meta Smith-Davis, 62, remembers the time she would sit on the porch saying, “You know they say that girl got that gangsta’?”

    “Yeah, she got AIDS,” she would say.

    Now, “Mrs. Meta” is the girl with HIV and a beloved counselor to hundreds of residents in and near Baton Rouge who are HIV-positive.

    Her message to them is clear: “There is nothing you can say to stop me. Nothing. You cannot stop me from loving you, from being here for you, for doing all I can to help you. There’s not any thing that you can tell me that I have not experienced personally, and​ I can tell you this, you do recover!”

    She is insistent with newly diagnosed clients, telling them, “You don’t have to die! People are living longer and fuller lives with HIV. Nothing in your life has to change when you take your meds and remain undetectable.”

    meta davis on screen

    As the assistant director of prevention for HAART: HIV/AIDS Alliance for Region Two, Smith-Davis is usually the first professional counselor​ to tell a client that they are HIV-positive. And she’s also the person who helps them develop a plan so that they are less afraid of living with HIV.

    “I do anything and everything that I have to do and can do to enhance the lives of someone living with HIV,” she said. Her commitment starts​ the moment she meets a client—whether their results are positive or not. Facing the results of an HIV test is frightening for many people and the team at HAART is focused on supporting people living with HIV/AIDS immediately.

    “We don’t let a client get out the door without helping them,” she said.

    Tim young

    Tim Young, HAART CEO

    This type of commitment is a standard the executive director, Tim Young, established at HAART. “He’s by far one of the finest men I’ve ever worked with. He’s fine human being,” she said. The non-profit organization is the largest in the state that offers a continuum of services for people with HIV/AIDS including primary health care, medications, housing, employment assistance, testing, and prevention education.

    Just after Smith-Davis was diagnosed in 2001, she walked into the HAART office for case management. She didn’t know anyone with HIV and needed help and support. “There was nobody. I felt disconnected from the world. (HAART) felt like home,” she said.

    She returned to HAART for ongoing care and to volunteer facilitating a workshop for women living with HIV. “Those women made me realize a sisterhood far greater than I knew I could have.” And it is that type of support and love that Smith-Davis said she sets to give every client. She goes to their medical appointments and helps them plan how to live their new life, especially if the client has to do so in secret.

    “I don’t care if they have to hide 30 pills in 30 different places in order to take the medicine, we will figure out how to keep them safe and how to keep them virally suppressed,” she said.

    She also shares strategies for safe sex based on the individual’s situation including same-gender sex. For one client she’d encourage them to use a condom correctly every time, for another the more realistic goal was to increase condom use by picking one day a week when they would always use a condom, then add days.

    Meta davis and menSmith-Davis, who is also a great, grandmother,  takes particular care of clients who appear to be in violent relationships. “Disclosing an HIV-positive diagnosis to a partner can add to or even start a violent relationship. So we counsel our clients very carefully. We don’t want a situation to escalate because one partner believes they can harm the other who is HIV-positive.”

    Her job, then, becomes to get the client to be as honest with her as possible. Especially, since it is required by law to disclose HIV-positive status prior to having sex. “This is required for the rest of their lives or they will face criminal charges and be labled a sex offender.” (Read: Things to understand about living with HIV)

    The self-described to’ up from the flo’ up, ex-con, drug-addicted, homeless Black woman living with HIV, said there’s nothing they can tell her that she has not dealt with personally. “That is truly one of the gifts God left me with coming from where I came from: I have the ability to relate to people in a whole different way,” she said. She uses this relatability to get youth—including her grandchildren—to talk about sex and HIV/AIDS. “We have to keep an open dialog or the streets will tell them all the wrong things.” She said the truth is no one has to get HIV. There are ways to prevent it.

    Meta davis award

    As the state co-chair of the Positive Women’s Network USA, Smith-Davis has met with politicians to advocate for better health services.

    After several sessions—even years—together, Smith-Davis and many of her HAART clients are now friends who she has helped reclaim their lives by getting healthier, pursuing education goals, having families, moving into apartments, and living open with HIV. She has worked with the Baton Rouge Stigma Index Project, and was named a Most Amazing HIV-Positive People of 2016 by HIV Plus magazine.

    She’s often celebrated as a hero for her work, but she said, “All I did was clean their mirror so they could see what I saw… All I did was clean the mirror so that they could do the work.” The work, she said, is being able to come to terms with an HIV-positive diagnosis and doing everything necessary to live a whole, healthy life.

    By Candace J. Semien
    Jozef Syndicate writer

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    Who Would’ve Thought?
    Fact: Eliminating stigmas can reduce the spread of HIV
    With HIV rates topping the nation, Baton Rouge needs HAART, Open Health, and PreP

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    Fact: Eliminating stigmas can reduce the spread of HIV

    The fact remains: There are still many stigmas around HIV/AIDS which are critical barriers to preventing the disease from spreading. In a city like Baton Rouge where new HIV diagnoses register as some of the highest in the nation, prevention is critical to stopping the disease and saving lives, said Tim Young, executive director of the HIV/AIDS Alliance for Region Two Inc., or HAART.

    When HAART opened its doors more than 20 years ago, the organization could only hope to save the lives of residents who were HIV positive. Now, people are living longer—and in many cases— living healthier with the virus that causes AIDS.

    “It’s been an uphill challenge from the beginning,” said Young.

    A large percentage of that battle has stemmed from stigmas people hold about the disease, said Eugene Collins, director of prevention for HAART.

    According to Collins, minimizing and eliminating stigmas can contribute to slowing the spread of HIV.  Once sex is discussed in non-condemning manners, behaviors and practices that put people at risk can be talked about and addressed. In Baton Rouge, a large population of new diagnosis are men who have sex with men. This behavior may be open or in secret. “Needle sharing now has a lower impact” said Collins who said it’s important to have conversations “around the dinner table” about safe sex practices just like the nation has done around needle use. These conversations aren’t happening, he said, because families still do not want to address homosexuality, premarital sex, or promiscuity. “The attitude is that these behaviors are wrong so the risks around them aren’t talked about in homes or schools or churches,” Collins said.

    A March 2018 report from the Louisiana Department of Health showed 4,080 people living with HIV in Baton Rouge.

    “This is an epidemic,” said State Rep. Kenny Cox, (D-Natchitoches) earlier this year during the legislative session, “HIV/AIDS destroys families, homes, communities.”

    “As a nation and a community, many of us have been quick to judge those with HIV, saying their infection was some kind of retribution for certain behavior. But, we don’t say people with other kinds of viruses, a common cold for example, deserved their illness,” said Young.

    “We shun the things we fear, and in the beginning, there was a lot to fear from HIV.  At first, scientists weren’t even able to prove it was transmitted sexually. That’s why we employ people with HIV when we can, and train all of our employees on how they can’t acquire or transmit HIV to or from our patients or others.”

    “As a community, we should reduce stigma around HIV. Without education, we may fear someone with HIV.  Without that stigma, those who are undiagnosed would be less fearful about learning they may test positive and how others around them may react to that news. We harm our community when we create fear in people which prevents them from being tested and accessing treatment,” Young said.

    Collins insists that these discussions cannot only lead to prevention but can also lead people to primary care at younger ages.  Because HAART has established an extensive referral system, residents can be connected to a network of service providers to get support. And, if testing shows that the person is HIV-positive, HAART refers them to a provider and secures medical treatment at its Baton Rouge facility, Open Health Care Clinic at 3901 North Blvd.

    “Open Health Care Clinic believes that addressing adolescent healthcare needs is essential to promoting healthier behaviors into adulthood, thereby bridging the gap between pediatric and adult primary care,” stated Lori Lauve, Open Health’s director of development.

    Open Health is a federally qualified health center which provides provide advanced medical services for every phase of a person’s life regardless of their financial or insurance status, Lauve stated in a news release. The services include pediatrics, dental, behavioral health, infectious diseases, preventive care, and endocrinology. It has extended hours, and is open for weekend appointments and walk-ins.

    The clinic provides primary care services to the entire Baton Rouge community with special care for people who are HIV-positive or who have been diagnosed with AIDS. “It’s whole care for the whole community,” said Young.

    He and Collins agree that community education and frank discussions about sexual behaviors are key to decreasing stigmas around HIV/AIDS and ultimately preventing the spread of the disease. Another tool for prevention is a medication called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). It is known by its brand name Truvada and can prevent people who are at high risk of contracting HIV from getting infected. PrEP assistance is provided at Open Health, HAART, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Baton Rouge Black Alcoholism Council,  CareSouth, Planned Parenthood, and Emerging Care of Louisiana. They also provide free HIV testing.

    Advances in prevention and treatment are bringing us closer to ending HIV, said Young. “I foresee a future when (Baton Rouge) finally has zero HIV transmissions reported in a year. That will be something for all of us to celebrate.”

    ONLINE:  http://www.haartinc.org/
    www.ohcc.org

    By Candace j Semien
    Jozef Syndicate reporter
    @jozefsyndicate

    Read more »
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    With HIV rates topping the charts, Baton Rouge needs HAART, PrEP, and Open Health

    The HIV AIDS Alliance for Region Two, Inc., or HAART, is the 19th largest nonprofit in the state, with a budget of more than $25 million. But with an HIV AIDS population of more than 5,000 people in the nine-parish Baton Rouge region, and more than 20,000 people in state, the need for HAART services far surpasses its budget.

    “We have been assisting those with HIV for nearly three decades and it’s been an uphill challenge from the beginning, said Tim Young, HAART CEO.

    In 1995 when HAART first opened its doors, the medical community was focused on keeping people with HIV alive. Since then, doctors and researchers have learned to treat HIV more effectively, which means fewer people are dying and people are living longer with their disease, said Young.

    “When I began working at HAART, new medications were literally getting people out of their death beds,” he said.

    Many people were seeing health improvements from the new medications that were becoming available, but many still were not, and even those who did often experienced serious side effects.  Today, the medications are so effective that someone who acquires HIV can have a normal life expectancy if they adhere to an effective medication regimen.

    “Now, we are learning how to assist people who have been living with HIV for as long as HAART has been in existence. That’s an amazing advancement. We assist many to cope with the challenges of helping to raise their grandchildren, something many thought would never be possible,” Young said.

    HAART’s original role was to anticipate the services people living with HIV needed and weren’t receiving and to serve as the fiscal agent for Ryan White funding in the Baton Rouge area with other organizations to provide direct services. “The first thing we did was to recognize the need for a larger network of providers to serve an increasing number of people who were living with HIV disease with the advent of new effective medications.  In the late ‘90s, we added Volunteers of America, Family Service of Greater Baton Rouge, and Care South to the network of Ryan White funded providers.”

    These relationships aid HAART in providing medical treatment, medication assistance, and case management to assist patients in navigating the health care system. HAART also provides medical transportation, dental services, and mental health services. HAART has established Baton Rouge’s Open Health Care Clinic, located at 3801 North Blvd., to expand medical services and serve the wider community. “Over the past three decades years we’ve built an enduring community asset and positioned it to become an integral part of the health care network for decades to come,” Young said.  “HAART has grown from a small organization, coordinating funding for a network of providers for a single disease, to one of the largest community health centers in the state, poised to grow its own network of clinics across the city, serving both children and adults from every walk of life.”

    “The day of novel treatments is actually already here. Early on, patients had a complex medication regimen that was difficult to achieve and often had side effects, some almost as serious as the disease itself.  Multiple pills, some with and some without food, every four hours meaning interrupted sleep and other complications were normal. Now, for most with HIV, treatment is one pill once a day. That’s remarkable when you consider how far we’ve come in a relatively short period of time, although a lifetime for some and sadly too late for others.  And they achieve complete viral suppression, so no more damage can be done to themselves by the virus and they can’t transmit it to others,” Young said.

    But, in a city with the highest rates of newly diagnosed HIV cases in the nation, is HAART positioned to slow down the spread of the virus that cause AIDS? Young explained, “Despite the educational messages, many continue to participate in risky behaviors which expose themselves and others to HIV transmission.  We’ve always relied on people changing their behavior and now we have a biomedical preventative that can protect them even if they don’t take other measures to protect themselves.

    The newest weapon against HIV is a one-a-day pill called PrEP. This Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis pill is a daily dosage of the HIV medication Truvada.

    “It works a little like birth control (pills) where a person takes it everyday to stop the virus from attaching to the immune system if they become exposed,” said Eugene Collins, director of prevention for HAART.

    “HIV disease is not just a threat to those who acquire it, but to potentially much larger numbers of people if left unchecked. It’s our responsibility to assist persons with HIV, not only to improve their personal health, but to ensure they don’t pass it on to others,” Young said.

    After testing positive, Baton Rouge residents are provided services through HAART’s Red Carpet linkage program that gets them connected “immediately” with medical and mental health appointments, employment assistance, and housing. “We provide a total continuum of care, medically and socially,” said Collins.

    According to Young, the strongest tools for HAART are the dedication and commitments of the non-profit’s board and staff. “We bring strong technical skills in the areas of medicine, psychology, finance, and marketing to bring awareness about the epidemic in our community and the solutions to limit and reduce its growth. Our new PrEP program, our new opioid-abuse outreach program ,and the broad spectrum of health and wellness services we bring to our patients are our strengths, thereby strengthening the community,” he said.

    HAART has survived for 22 years despite the constantly changing health care environment, and HIV care changes even more than health care in general.

    “We’ve been successful as a health care resource because we’ve been guided by a strong community-based board of directors, made up of experienced professionals who help us to look ahead and chart a successful vision for the future. Health care will continue to evolve and HAART will adapt to change so we may continue to pursue our mission and commitment to our community.  I’m confident of that,” said Young who is also CEO of Open Health Clinic. ℜ

     By Candace J. Semien
    Jozef Syndicate reporter
    @jozefsyndicate

    Read more »
  • COMMUNITY EVENT: HIV Health Day Dec. 6

    HAART, Volunteers of America, the Black Treatment Advocates Network and Walgreens invite the Baton Rouge community to join them for a family friendly event on Saturday, Dec. 6, 10am. at the Walgreens located at 5955 Airline Highway. This community event will promote an overall healthy lifestyle by providing free HIV testing, health screenings and employment assistance. The event will also feature games, space walks, raffles, door prizes and food.

    Read more »
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