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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Grant Ogren: The work continues: Raising awareness and building community in Spokane

By By: Grant Ogren SAN- Spokane AIDS Network

This Saturday, SAN (formerly the Spokane AIDS Network) and the Spokane Regional Health District will host the 2019 Spokane AIDS Walk and Strength for the Journey BBQ at noon.

Each year, the Spokane AIDS Walk offers the opportunity to raise awareness, enjoy a meal and raise critical resources to support the local fight against HIV. To some, HIV and AIDS seems like a distant memory. Yet there are still close to 13,000 people living with HIV in Washington and roughly 600 in Spokane County.

What is unique about the fight against HIV is that the epidemic is often fueled by social inequities – such as poverty, racism and homophobia – that keep people from getting tested or seeking the treatment they need. Stigma – or negative attitudes toward people living with HIV – pushes people further into the margins. Even today. Even in Spokane.

Importantly, with the epidemic nearly 40 years in, and with advances in treatment, the population living with HIV is an aging one. It is estimated that by 2030, three out of four people living with HIV (PLWHA) in the U.S. will be 50 or older. Individuals living with long-term HIV often deal with a multitude of other chronic conditions and are more likely to experience social isolation and loneliness.

There are also bright spots on the horizon:

    Efforts to control the HIV epidemic in Washington serve as a model for the rest of the country. In Spokane County, 88% of PLWHA were engaged in care at the end of 2017 – compared with 61% nationally – and 76% had a suppressed viral load, which means the level of the virus in their blood is undetectable. This is compared with 51% nationally.

    The U=U (Undetectable = Untransmissible) Campaign is reaching communities with the clear science that PLWHA who take a daily antiretroviral therapy and have achieved an undetectable viral load have no risk of transmitting HIV to a partner.

    We now have a new prevention tool in the fight against HIV. TRUVADA for PrEP® (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is a prescription medicine that can help reduce the risk of getting HIV-1 through sex, when taken every day and used together with safer sex practices.

SAN first started in 1985 as an informal network of friends, medical caregivers and concerned citizens who came together to help coordinate services for PLWHA in Spokane. After more than three decades of service, SAN closed its direct HIV prevention and cares services in 2017 due to a change in funding, ultimately transferring clients to the Spokane Regional Health District. The board of directors voted to maintain the organization’s nonprofit status in order to continue its important work of raising awareness of the impact of HIV and AIDS in Spokane. The board spent its first year, post-closure, evaluating both our financial outlook and ability to continue to serve PLWHA. We learned that what was needed was rather universal: stable housing, food and a sense of community.

The SAN board decided to prioritize our efforts on sponsoring events to help raise awareness of HIV; providing a monthly food pantry; hosting a holiday meal bag program; and supporting requests for emergency assistance to ensure critical access to housing, transportation and food for HIV clients of the Spokane Regional Health District.

One of the most emotional parts of SAN closing its direct services in 2017 was the loss of the SAN house on Monroe Street. For years, it had served not only as resource for HIV prevention and case management but also as a comfortable and safe place to be cared for and understood; the site of countless meals, support groups, events and holiday parties. We knew that a reliable “home” would be essential to fully serve our community. SAN has been immensely grateful to the Odyssey Youth Movement for offering space at its home on Perry Street for SAN to host monthly “3rd Thursdays at Odyssey” pantry and meal events, along with a weekly peer group meeting.

Finally, we knew if we wanted our vision for SAN to be sustainable, we needed to make an investment. Earlier this month, the board of directors announced that I would be stepping off the board to become SAN’s first executive director since 2017.

This weekend is our first event since that announcement. It’s an important time to share our commitment with the PLWHA community in Spokane, and to mobilize the critical work of ending the HIV epidemic here at home and everywhere.

I invite you to please join us in this fight. Learn more on:

Grant Ogren is executive director of SAN-Spokane AIDS Network.