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The Center's #BeTheGeneration campaign challenges San Diego community to end HIV

SAN DIEGO, California -- Can San Diego cut the number of new HIV cases to zero in the next 10 years?

Delores Jacobs, CEO of the San Diego LGBT Community Center, thinks so. In a message to the community in the organization’s weekly newsletter last month, Jacobs urged San Diegans to reinvigorate the national #BeTheGeneration campaign.

#BeTheGeneration was launched in 2006 by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institute of Health, as a call to action to help end the war against HIV and AIDS.

“We can be the generation that fights to end new cases, that stops the epidemic-level spread of HIV/AIDS,” Jacobs wrote. “We can make it happen.”

To make it happen, HIV/AIDS education needs to be provided without shame or fear, and access to condoms and medications for all who need them should be easily available, Jacobs said.

“PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis — treatments like Truvada) and PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) are revolutionary tools in this fight, and offer the most promising hope we have seen in prevention,” Jacobs said. “There will be even more next-generation drugs behind these.

“We must ensure those who have the virus can access the medical care and medications that will keep their viral loads undetectable so they will stay healthier and much, much less likely to transmit the virus,” she said. “We need everyone to get tested and encourage others to do the same — frequently. With an intensified focus on prevention, testing and treatment, new infections can and will decrease. Ending new cases will decrease the transmission rate, which will help end this epidemic.”

During the first phase of the #BeTheGeneration campaign, The Center is relying heavily upon social media to garner support for the campaign. Several individuals and various AIDS Walk teams have posed with The Center’s “#BeTheGeneration” sign and the photos are posted on sites like Faceboook, Twitter, and Instagram using the hashtag #BeTheGeneration.

While the kickoff to the campaign seems to be picking up steam, much fear and stigma still surrounds HIV/AIDS, causing many to neglect testing, treatment and prevention measures.

In a follow-up note, Jacobs wrote that nationally, only about a third of HIV-positive individuals reach the point of being and staying virally suppressed, because 18-20 percent of people with HIV have not tested and do not know they are HIV-positive.

“This HIV Cascade or cycle is worst in environments high in poverty, high in stigma/shame, and with the significant racial disparities in health education and access,” Jacobs wrote. “The conversations Center staff and I are having with too many in the LGBT community are filled with crippling fear, shame and stigma — fear that prevents regular HIV testing, stealing the chance for early detection and treatment.”

Benny Cartwright, 34, who currently works at The Center as Director of Community Outreach, wrote a column in 2010 for Gay San Diego media partner SDGLN about his long-term fear of HIV, which is representative of the fear that many gay men in his age face.

Cartwright, who said he did not get his first HIV test until nearly nine years after his first sexual encounter, discussed what his fear was all about.

“I was most afraid of what my family and friends would think,” Cartwright wrote. “How would I tell them I was HIV-positive? For many years, I decided ignorance was bliss. If I didn’t take the test, I wouldn’t know either way and I would be fine, I thought. And even though as an activist, I spent many hours of my young life encouraging my peers to get tested, walking friends over to the student health center to get tested, organizing World AIDS Day events and handing out condoms, I did not end up getting tested for HIV until 2005 — when I was nearly 25 years old!”

Cartwright’s full commentary can be read HERE.

Through her writings, Jacobs is hopeful about the possibility of ending new cases of HIV in San Diego by 2024, and shares the ways that the goal can be achieved.

• We can help those not testing regularly to get tested. Early detection of HIV gives everyone their greatest chance at living a healthy, normal, long life. Silence, fear and stigma limit our chances for that full, healthy life.

• We can help all those without easy access to care, to get into appropriate HIV care and to be able to stay in care and achieve viral suppression.

• San Diego has incredible care available for HIV — but that care cannot be effective if we do not focus on reducing fear and stigma, on regular testing for the untested and on getting and keeping all people in care.

To participate in the #BeTheGeneration campaign, contact The Center at 619-692-2077 or contact Cartwright at bcartwright@thecentersd.org. You can also learn more at bethegeneration.org.

George Vernon is a local freelance writer. He can be reached at georgevernon76@gmail.com.

(Editor's note: This article was originally published on SDGLN media partner Gay San Diego.)