Preventing and treating, one case at a time: Madison’s AIDS Network responds to community needs statewide

TOriginally Published in The Badger Herald, February 21, 2012

ucked away in a Williamson Street office park is an inconspicuous doorway marked “Suite H.” Straight to the point, the glass pane lists only the hours of operation in practical white stickers. If you weren’t already aware, you might never know of the public services the staff and volunteers inside this building provide to Madison and southern Wisconsin.

The entrance to the Madison AIDS Network

Photo courtesy of AIDS Network, Inc.

Founded under the leadership of community activist Adrian Pope, the AIDS Network has provided HIV-prevention and client care services for the past 26 years. It operates from its main office in Madison, as well as offices in Janesville and Beloit.

AIDS Network addresses HIV in two ways, with the first focusing on activities that prevent the spread of the disease. To do so, AIDS Network staff distribute health information and condoms at night venues, offer confidential STD testing and operate a needle exchange. The second type of service AIDS Network provides is care for HIV-positive individuals. For instance, volunteers are paired to help clients who might have physical impairments.

From its inception, AIDS Network has been supported by donors and volunteers from Madison and neighboring communities. The organization receives donations from the monthly “Camp Bingo” games at the Edgewater Hotel — emceed by “Diva” Cass Marie. The largest fundraising event for AIDS Network is the annual Wisconsin AIDS Ride, which will occur in August this year.

Dan Guinn, AIDS Network’s executive director, has worked with Madison’s HIV-positive community for the past decade.

“I wanted to help lower-income populations … populations with higher need, [who are] disenfranchised,” said Guinn.

From his years of experience, Guinn has a deep knowledge of HIV statistics and prevention strategies. One of his current worries relates to people’s lack of awareness concerning their HIV status; a sizable number of HIV-positive people do not know they are infected.

One in five is what they (the Centers for Disease Control) think,” Guinn said.

Another part of Guinn’s job at AIDS Network is to support its case managers, the staff who work directly with clients. One of these people is Shawn Neal, who before becoming a case manager worked in the field of HIV-prevention. He described his job as one focused on preventing the spread of HIV by encouraging safe-sex and testing.

AIDS Network prevention outreach.

Photo courtesy of David Hoefler

Prevention efforts in Madison are directed at men. While women represent a rapidly increasing demographic in terms of new HIV infections, men still make up about 80 percent of Wisconsin’s 6,482 reported cases. As such, prevention initiatives focus on locating places “where men would try to meet other men,” Neal said. Some of these places are out in the community, like bars and parks. Others are digital, like chatrooms.

Stigma is always an ongoing concern when discussing HIV. Neal emphasizes the importance of maintaining a nonjudgemental attitude as he raises awareness about STDs. It is especially a concern for communities that experience disproportionate rates of HIV-infection. African Americans and Latinos make up about 13 percent of the Wisconsin’s population, but as of September 2011, represented 50 percent of the state’s number of HIV cases.

Neal noted this stigma leads people in minority communities to distance themselves from discussions about infection. Some may see discussion of HIV as drawing negative attention to their communities, when their communities are already marginalized to begin with. Isn’t life as a person of color challenging enough?

“In African American and Latino groups … some … want to get away from the idea of HIV as much as possible,” he said. “Going out and talking to communities … you hear a lot of people say, ‘Oh no! I’m good, I’m good.’”

Guinn points out that an unfortunate consequence of reading about higher rates of HIV in specific communities is that people forget that all people are still at risk.

“We have children on our caseload, elderly … many nationalities, all races, all genders,” he said.

As Neal illustrated, the thought that HIV happens to other people can prevent people from getting tested.

“I had a married heterosexual client [who] was almost on the verge of passing away before [his doctors] said, ‘well maybe you should get an HIV test,’” Neal said. “Just because of the community he was a part of, they just never assumed he would be at risk for HIV infection. He is still pretty angry at the doctor for not [assuming] that too.”

For their HIV-positive clients, AIDS Network staff take a holistic approach to providing care. Ranging from its dental clinic to its food bank, AIDS Network provides many services in-house. It also refers clients to community partners for the services it doesn’t currently provide.

Madison AIDS Network food pantry.

Photo courtesy of David Hoefler

One of the more sobering issues any agency that works with HIV-positive people inevitably faces is responding to client deaths. AIDS Network has created a quilt to help remember and mourn the passing of these people. When pointing to the quilt, filled with fabric stars, Guinn spoke quietly.

“Every year, however many clients we’ve lost, we’ve sewn that many stars upon it.” He paused. “I’ll have to phase over to something new pretty soon.”

A reminder of the dead is poignant. Yet, we rarely see the deaths AIDS Network helps prevent. When they are visible, it is a special moment. Neal said people have approached him and told him, “‘I think you saved my life.’”

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