How CROI 2015 Restored My Hope

March 3, 2015

Michael C. Webb, Jr. serves as a Prevention Supervisor for Legacy Community Health Services’ Public Health Department. As prevention supervisor, Michael oversees daily operations of HIV/STD prevention and empowerment outreach activities for Legacy’s mPowerment program, a program that focuses on empowering young gay/bi men of color.

Michael is one of the participants in a pilot program for community delegates at CROI. In addition to the CROI Community Educator Scholarship Program, AVAC and the Black AIDS Institute—with support from the CROI Community Liaison Subcommittee—supported a pilot program providing an opportunity for additional community reps to attend the meeting. For more such updates from CROI, visit here.

When I applied to be a Community Educator Scholar for CROI 2015 I was starting to lose hope that we could ever defeat HIV/AIDS within Black MSM communities and I was desperately seeking help and inspiration. As prevention supervisor at Legacy Community Health Services, I am still relatively new in this field but during my tenure I am witnessing the alarming increase in HIV infections within Black MSM in Houston, Texas. This reality combined with my own HIV positive journey paints a picture of courageous resilience within our most underserved communities but also highlights the necessity of immediate action. CROI 2015 has given me invaluable hope that HIV/AIDS within Black MSM communities can be defeated if we are courageous and strategically take advantage of all the tools we now have at our disposal.

As commonly agreed upon, we now have the tools that could accomplish and AIDS free generation and get us to zero (zero new infections, zero discrimination, and zero HIV/AIDS related deaths). PrEP, or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis in the form of Truvada, has received an extensive amount of attention by researchers attending CROI 2015 and the universal conclusions were that our fears on how PrEP works in the real world were unfounded. Based off the research presented, PrEP does not encourage a change in sexual behavior practices or increase “risky behavior,” PrEP adherence has not been a major issue, and there has been minimal Truvada resistance for participants who seroconverts to an HIV positive status.

This game changing research now puts the responsibility of preventing new HIV infections in our hands. It can be argued that with these facts, it is our moral obligation as public health advocates to make this new weapon against HIV/AIDs widely available to communities in the most need. This means making PrEP accessible within our community health centers, advocating for policy developments that increase funding for PrEP access for the economically disadvantaged, and creating coalitions that actively feeds the community and policy makers with accurate information on PrEP. When we comprehensively integrate PrEP into our HIV/AIDS prevention toolkit the possibility of getting to zero new infections can become a much needed reality.

CROI 2015 also highlights the lack of research within our transgender communities even though there is common speculation that transgender women are the hardest hit by HIV/AIDS, with some projecting a positivity rate above 40 percent. If we sincerely want to progress social justice for transgender communities then we must be willing to evolve our social structures, which include intentional research within transgender communities.

I have never left a conference more inspired to tackle this epidemic, prepared with plans derived from the research and facts. Nevertheless, we must ensure that we are not leaving our transgender brothers and sisters behind in this fight. I now confidently believe that if we utilize this approach and information effectively across the nation, our dream of an AIDS free generation can become our reality.