Discussing the Epidemic at the Georgia State Capitol

February 5, 2015

Devin Barrington Ward is a public health advocate residing in Washington, DC. Currently, Devin serves as the Health Equity Fellow for the National Coalition of STD Directors (NCSD) overseeing the organization’s work on reducing stigma in public health practice and eliminating health disparities among marginalized populations. He previously worked as the Chief of Staff for Georgia State Representative Keisha Waites. Devin is also a member of AVAC’s PxROAR program, which trains US advocates in biomedical HIV prevention research education and advocacy through mentorship, peer support, networking opportunities and technical and financial support.

For the past two years I have worked with the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, the largest caucus of black state legislators in the country, to host a series of sexual health summits and symposiums at the Georgia State Capitol. The most recent event took place on World AIDS Day 2014 and was a great success. It attracted nearly 65 public health and HIV advocates from across Georgia and 15 members of the Georgia State House and State Senate to talk about the state’s HIV epidemic. Georgia, like the rest of the Southeast United States, ranks at the top of the list for new cases of HIV, and it is imperative that we enlist the help of our state and local elected officials in the fight to end the epidemic. But, before we can fully enlist their help, we must educate them on our work.

Surprisingly, legislators in Georgia were largely unaware of the severity of the epidemic, its impact on their constituents, and the advancements in research and science, which has led to the development of biomedical prevention methods like PrEP. After sitting in on presentations from advocates like Kenyon Farrow from Treatment Action Group, who talked about the benefits of PrEP in HIV prevention efforts and how other states have adopted PrEP policies, legislators like State Representative Dee Dawkins- Haigler, Chair of the Black Caucus, indicated a strong desire to roll up her sleeves and get involved.

One of the most powerful statements of the December symposium came from a state senator and illustrated why HIV advocates must engage in advocacy at all levels of government. This senior democrat who serves on the state senate’s powerful Appropriations Committee, overseeing billions of dollars in state funding, said that no one has ever came to speak with him about the city’s HIV epidemic and its impact on black gay men. This statement was made after hearing reports from state public health officials that the city he is elected to represent in the legislature, Atlanta, is a city where black gay and bisexual men have a 60 percent chance of acquiring HIV before the age of 30.

Since the World AIDS Day symposium, major movement has been made in Georgia on HIV. Immediately following the symposium, the Chair of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus convened a working group [that I now chair] to develop policy recommendations for an eventual sexual health policy agenda for the Caucus, the first of its kind. Even more exciting, movement has already begun on HIV legislation, with the first bill—House Bill 53—which was introduced at the start of this legislative session. If passed, House Bill 53 would require medical providers to offer patients an HIV test in both primary care and emergency room settings as a part of routine blood work, following similar legislation passed in New York and recommendations made by the CDC.

The bill was introduced by State Representative Keisha Waites, who lost her brother to HIV some years ago. Representative Waites is committed to using the power of her office to honor the memory of her brother by working to pass this bill, and I was happy to help by lending her my insight and expertise as her former Chief of Staff and current member of the HIV advocacy community.

The next big event that is part of this effort to address HIV/AIDS in Georgia is coming up soon. The Georgia Legislative Black Caucus will be making history by holding its first legislative hearing on HIV/AIDS and other sexual health disparities in Georgia on Tuesday, February 10th at the State Capitol, which will fall on the heels of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. It is my hope that public health officials, HIV advocates, and those affected and infected by HIV will join me at this hearing and tell legislators that it is time to get serious about ending HIV in Georgia.

Ending HIV in Georgia and across the world will require the involvement of all of those responsible for the welfare and quality of life of their communities. Thanks to AVAC, they have made it possible for me to get leaders in Georgia involved, but Georgia cannot be alone in this increased state level advocacy, especially in other areas of the Southeast hit hard by the HIV epidemic. If you have not spoken to your local elected officials about the hard work you doing to end to the epidemic, please write a letter, make a phone call, or schedule a visit. You never know how much power your voice has until you use it!

To find out who your local elected officials are, visit Project Vote Smart at votesmart.org.