[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hirty years ago, the first AIDS Walk in New York was held by GMHC. Walkers numbered over 4,500 and $710,000 was raised. Last year, AIDS Walk New York, which, over the years, has expanded to include more than forty AIDS service organizations as beneficiaries through the Community Partnership Program, drew 35,000 participants  and raised $5.1 million.

On May 17, walkers and supporters will return for the 10-kilometer event.

The starting line: AIDS Walk New York's debut in 1986. Photo courtesy GMHC
The starting line: AIDS Walk New York’s debut in 1986. Photo courtesy GMHC

A&U asked Jason Cianciotto, MPA, Director, Public Affairs and Policy, GMHC, and  Osvaldo Perdomo, Secretary, GMHC Board of Directors.

A&U: How is GMHC marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Walk? 

Jason Cianciotto: Since 1986, AIDS Walk New York has inspired nearly 890,000 people to walk and millions more to donate, raising more than $139 million to combat HIV and AIDS. As we approach this important milestone, we honor the progress we have made over these past decades, but we also acknowledge that we must continue the hard work that lies ahead to end the epidemic and find a cure.

The 30th annual AIDS Walk New York is also reviving one of its most successful and interactive street and social media campaigns, inviting supporters to share why they walk. The “I Walk” action statement is now displayed all over the city, featuring the faces of staff, clients, and volunteers at GMHC.

This year, we are also acknowledging the tremendous efforts of our top thirty fundraising teams and top thirty individuals. Many have been participating since the very first AIDS Walk New York and are lifetime walkers. They have helped make the event what it is today and inspire us all. These groups will receive commemorative awards throughout the campaign, as well as special recognition on the day of the Walk.

[pull_quote_center]What do teams bring to the Walk beyond fundraising dollars?[/pull_quote_center]

Teams really capture the community spirit of the event. More than 2,500 of them participate in AIDS Walk, representing communities and organizations as diverse as New York City. They account for greater than sixty percent of the total fundraising and represent a majority of participants. They grow with the support of their school’s or company’s leadership, are joined by friends and family, and then they all come together at the event for an inspiring and memorable day. They allow for families, friends, and colleagues to have an open dialogue about HIV and AIDS, to raise awareness and combat stigma, and of course they have the most fun!

[pull_quote_right]At GMHC, what are the three most pressing challenges that your organization is working to address right now to meet the needs of people living with HIV or AIDS, and those most at risk?[/pull_quote_right]

One of the most pressing challenges is reaching young gay and bisexual men of color at highest risk for infection. This is in fact a nationwide challenge. In a December 2013 New York Times cover story that featured GMHC’s work with this community even the Director of HIV Prevention at the CDC, Dr. Jonathan Mermin, referred to reaching them as the “Holy Grail.” GMHC is meeting this challenge in several ways. For example, we are leading statewide advocacy efforts to ensure that young gay and bisexual men of color have greater access to the latest advancements in HIV prevention technology, including fourth-generation HIV testing and pre- and post-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP and PEP). We also continue to support award-winning and nationally-recognized prevention and social support programs focused on and led by young men of color. These include Outstanding Beautiful Brothers (OBB), the “I Love my Boo” campaign, and the Latex Ball. In fact, the Latex Ball is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary this year.

GMHC is also a leader in developing new models to help ensure people living with HIV and AIDS stay connected to care and achieve and maintain viral suppression, which is not only critical to their health, but also critical to preventing new infections. For example, in 2014 we confirmed that ninety percent of individuals who tested newly positive at our David Geffen Testing Center received services from an HIV primary care physician, which is higher than the New York City-wide rate of connection to care (eighty-four percent in 2012). For the proportion of our clients who provided to us the results of their lab tests in the past six months, we have a viral suppression rate of eighty-six percent, significantly higher than the city-wide viral suppression rate of fifty-one percent. Additionally, the viral suppression rate of clients who tested HIV-positive at our testing center is even higher: ninety percent.

We also know that even with these successful programs and activities, there will not be an end to the epidemic if prevention and treatment efforts are not scaled up to meet the need. This is why we have been a core part of the coalition advocating for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Plan to End AIDS by 2020. In fact, our CEO Kelsey Louie was one of the experts appointed to Governor Cuomo’s commission charged with developing a blueprint for the plan, which supports three pillars:

• Identifying persons with HIV who remain undiagnosed and linking them to healthcare

• Linking and retaining persons diagnosed with HIV to healthcare and getting them on anti-HIV therapy to maximize HIV virus suppression so they remain healthy and prevent further transmission

• Facilitating access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for high-risk persons to keep them HIV-negative. But as our CEO Kelsey Louie shared at our recent Spring Gala, “It is not enough to talk about just lowering new HIV infection rates. We must voice what we all know, but are often too afraid to say: We must find a cure!”

Early days of the crisis: Buddy with client. Photo courtesy GMHC

[pull_quote_left]What are you thinking about—as a New Yorker, as Secretary for GMHC’s board of directors, and/or as an AIDS advocate—when you think about the fact that we have reached the thirtieth anniversary of the Walk?[/pull_quote_left]

Osvaldo Perdomo: The AIDS Walk New York thirtieth anniversary brings a bittersweet taste to my heart when I think about it. It’s bitter because we still don’t have a cure for HIV or AIDS, because millions of people lost their lives and because there are still 50,000 new HIV infections in the United States every year. It’s bitter because stigma is still a problem in the United States and in many parts of the world. It’s bitter because many think HIV or AIDS is a thing from the past or that one-pill a day would take care of the problem. That’s far from the truth.

I’m grateful we have better medical treatment available, but unfortunately they don’t work for everyone. That was my personal struggle when I was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS ten years ago. I’m grateful because with the help of the AIDS Walk New York I was able to get the help and support I needed to get me through a difficult time. I’m grateful AIDS Walk New York continues to be a prominent stage to raise awareness, minimize stigma, support those affected and raise funds….

What would you like to see happen in our discussions and actions around the fight against AIDS in the coming few years?

The new initiative to end AIDS by 2020 in New York State is a great initiative and a challenging one at the same time. Programs need to be funded to educate people and to make prevention tools available to all of those at risk. We need to maximize every resource available to educate the public about PrEP and PEP as a tool available today to prevent exposure to the virus. Many people do not know about PrEP or PEP. If PrEP or PEP was available in the beginning of the AIDS epidemic we wouldn’t have lost so many people. I wish I had this tool ten years ago! We get 50,000 new HIV infections in the United States every year—and it’s been that way for the past decade. It will stay that way, unless we change it now.

This new tool has the potential to lower the number of new infections. Testing and connection to medical care is also very important….We must give the public the tools available to lower HIV infections in a significant way!

For more information about AIDS Walk NY, log on to: http://ny.aidswalk.net/. Link to GMHC here: www.gmhc.org.

Reporting by Chael Needle