Kern County Observes World AIDS Day in Powerful Series of Events

December 8, 2017 /

South Kern Sol, News Report, Dean Welliver

Kern County recognized World AIDS Day 2017 with a comprehensive series of events focused on awareness, education, prevention, and remembrance, including the Kern County HIV Partnership’s World AIDS Day Resource Fair and the Bakersfield AIDS Project’s 24th annual World AIDS Day Vigil.

The Kern County HIV Partnership held its first annual World AIDS Day Resource Fair at the Self Help Credit Union in downtown Bakersfield, featuring local and statewide agencies that typically meet throughout the year to provide HIV prevention, treatment, and support services to the Kern County community. This year the theme was “increasing impact through transparency, accountability, and partnerships.”

Natasha Felkins, lead organizer of the resource fair and a Community Health Educator at Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, said the resource fair aimed to educate community members about HIV prevention and reduce stigma about HIV testing and persons living with HIV.

“There is a long life to live and we just need to be aware of PrEP and PEP and other ways that people can prevent contracting HIV and everyone should just be more compassionate of one another regardless of their status.”

PrEP, Pre-Exposure Prophylactic, consists of a medication prescribed by a doctor that HIV negative people can take daily to prevent contracting HIV if they come into contact with the virus. PEP, Post Exposure Prophylactic, is a medication prescribed by a doctor to an HIV negative person who has come into contact with HIV or is unsure if they have come into contact with HIV that can prevent them from contracting HIV if they take it within 72 hours of exposure to the virus.

Michelle Corson, spokesperson for the Kern County Public Health Department, said that in the last five years three times more people under the age of 20 have been diagnosed with HIV than in any other previous five-year period.

She went on to say that the Health Department was excited to be one of the partners of the Kern County HIV Partnership that planned this event. “We are excited to be part of this partnership to support our community and promote resources that are available in a location that is easily accessible to the community.”

Felkins indicated that Planned Parenthood Mar Monte offers resources to youth to help prevent the transmission of HIV. “We do provide services to youth under 18. In the state of California, anyone over the age of 12 can access reproductive services that includes birth control, condom access, testing, and treatment.”

Felkins explained that youth under 18 don’t need to bring a parent or an ID with them if they need to access services at Planned Parenthood Mar Monte. There is also a state-funded program called Family PAC that will pay for their services.

Juan Garcia, Project Director of the Kern Lifeline Project with Clinica Sierra Vista, shared that the theme of the event was that there should not be fear about getting tested for HIV. “People think, ‘I don’t want to know, I don’t want to know.’ That’s the wrong message and just the wrong idea.”

Garcia continued that it is important to take an HIV status to protect your own personal health and to protect the health of those you love.

The Kern County Public Health Department also shared that 54 percent of those living with HIV in Kern County are men having sex with men.

Jan Hefner, Executive Director of the Center for Sexuality and Gender Diversity, told South Kern Sol that her organization helps connect the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning, LGBTQ, community to support, HIV prevention, and treatment resources. “We will link people into testing resources, and encourage people to get tested because HIV has become a manageable disease. We also provide social support, it doesn’t have to be just for LGBT people, but people are welcome to come for a safe space where people are not going to make a judgment about their sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status.”

Hefner also said that her organization promotes partnerships year round through their work in referring clients to agencies and services that are doing HIV prevention work within the community.  “One of the things we really believe in doing is collaborating within our community.”

Estrella Lucero, Program Associate for Equality California, said that her organization focuses on legislative advocacy for people living with HIV. Their efforts mostly focus on improving access to healthcare which will help people living with HIV have access to medical treatment to live healthy lives.

“This year we passed a comprehensive HIV decriminalization bill. HIV was stigmatized unlike all other communicable diseases, it was a felony charge, and now it’s down to a misdemeanor charge. ”

One of the keynote speakers at the World AIDS Day Resource Fair was local author of The Rough Season and blogger for POZ Magazine Martha Warriner-Jarrett. Warriner-Jarrett spoke about her experience being diagnosed with AIDS after she was hospitalized with Stage Three hypertensive crisis and acute respiratory failure.

She was shocked by her diagnosis as she had never engaged in risky behavior and had been faithful to her late-husband who she now believes transmitted the virus to her.

“It took me months before I was able to grapple with it. About a year later I was well enough that I decided to write a memoir about it and about my experiences. That helped a lot, was kind of a cathartic process.”

Warriner-Jarrett stressed that it is important to get tested even if you are not considered at risk for contracting HIV. As a 70-year old white heterosexual woman she was outside of the age range that the Center for Disease Control recommends to get tested.

“Get tested. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re at risk. Doesn’t matter how old you are. Doesn’t matter if you never engaged in risky behavior. If you’re sexually active, even with someone you think his faithful, you’re at risk.”

Warriner-Jarrett noted that when she moved to Bakersfield she had some trouble finding support in Bakersfield’s small HIV positive community. She believes that the World AIDS Day Resource Fair would have helped her to find support for living with HIV in Bakersfield. “I now know that it’s available. It’s just I didn’t know where to look.”

Later in the evening Bakersfield AIDS Project hosted their World AIDS Day Vigil at the Liberty Bell in downtown Bakersfield with speakers such as Audrey Chavez, Phillip Castro, and Bakersfield City Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan who shared their personal stories of losing family members to AIDS-related complications.

Audrey Chavez, president of Bakersfield AIDS Project, spoke about the importance of remembering those who have lost their lives to AIDS related complications and those who paved the way for better treatment and access to care on World AIDS Day

“For me the importance of World AIDS Day is remembering the people that have lost their lives, who suffered much during the early days of AIDS, and also the pioneers who worked so hard and advocated.”

Chavez said she started the Bakersfield AIDS Project after she lost her brother Ricky Montoya to AIDS-related complications in December of 1992. For her, everyday is World AIDS Day. “I live without my brother, and that’s a tremendous void in our lives. That’s not the HIV 101 that I want our youth to have.”

Chavez told the audience that safer sex education is the key to preventing more youth from contracting HIV. “Our young people need to know that they have the right to comprehensive sex education in Kern County even if Kern County is pushing abstinence. It’s important to recognize their rights, and then also their own responsibility to negotiate safer sex.”

The vigil also showcased panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt including the panel that Chavez’s family created to memorialize her brother.

World AIDS Day is an international day of awareness about HIV and remembrance for those who have died from the disease celebrated every December 1 since 1988.

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Dean Welliver

Dean Welliver

Dean Welliver is a Program Associate for South Kern Sol and a student at Bakersfield College.