By Mrinal Gokhale
At about 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 8, about five local health organizations displayed tables with brochures, care packages, condoms and other informational materials in the MATC (733 W. State St.) S floor, as many students walked by and visited.
One table was unattended, offering hundreds of free condoms, which were gone within five minutes.
“We left the table unattended to eliminate discomfort, so people don’t feel judged.
It worked,” laughed Ericka Sinclair, MS, PHH and CEO of Greater Milwaukee Center of Health and Wellness, Inc. “The condoms are out there now and people will use them.”
The Greater Milwaukee Center for Health and Wellness was one of about five organizations at this event, held in honor of National Black AIDS/HIV Awareness Day (NBAHAD).
For many years, African Americans have been affected disproportionately by HIV and AIDS, and this observance encourages African Americans to get tested for the disease. National Black AIDS/ HIV Awareness Day is on February 7 and is in its sixteenth year, most commonly observed in cities with disproportionate African American HIV and AIDS rates.
“Two in five African American gay and bisexual men are HIV positive in Milwaukee alone, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services AIDS/HIV program,” Sinclair said.
Gina Allende, health program manager at UMOS, coordinates a yearly NBAHAD event in Milwaukee along with the Greater Milwaukee Center, Planned Parenthood, Wisconsin Hispanic/Latino Tobacco Prevention Network and Sixteenth Street Community Health Center.
The organizations partner to provide free HIV/ AIDS and STD testing to attendees, funded by Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services. This year, UMOS provided STD testing for gonorrhea and chlamydiae and Milwaukee Health Services, Inc. and Diverse and Resilient provided HIV tests.
“Milwaukee has 150 to 200 new HIV infections per year, which I feel is a lot for our city size.
60 percent of new infections are African Americans,” Allende said.
Allende said it’s her first time coordinating National Black AIDS/HIV Awareness Day at MATC, and she’s happy with the attendance. In the past, she held this event at YWCA and AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin.
“There’s so much foot traffic here, meaning we come to the people instead of expecting them to come to us.”
Although this yearly observance is intended to reach blacks, Allende said everyone is welcome.
“That’s why we have organizations like Sixteenth Street Clinic and Wisconsin Tobacco Prevention Network.”
“We offer $10 gift cards for first 50 people who get tested.
A few have come this morning but we’re expecting about 60 more,” she said.
Sinclair is familiar with stigmas surrounding the disease and she said the organizations aim to de-stigmatize through this event.
“There’s a stigma that getting tested for AIDS/HIV means you’re doing something you shouldn’t do.
Some people don’t get tested because they’re scared of the results, but the earlier you diagnose, the easier it is to prevent it from turning into AIDS,” she said, adding that her clinic offers long term care to HIV positive patients.
The Greater Milwaukee Center for Health and Wellness, Inc. opened in August 2015, offering services such as primary care, STD testing and transgender care.
“I have fifteen years of AIDS and HIV counseling experience, and I am counseling people whose tests come back positive today,” Sinclair said.
Three young women from Planned Parenthood displayed next to Sinclair’s table, helping people sign up for testing.
They escorted attendees upstairs to the testing room, and planned to alert Sinclair if someone’s test showed up as reactive.
“We’re doing preliminary HIV tests today. If the test comes up reactive, there’s a high chance it’s HIV, but there could be other factors triggering it,” Sinclair First National Black HIV/AIDS Event Held at Downtown MATC said.
If anyone’s test comes up reactive, Sinclair said she’d counsel those people, explain the test results, and schedule a follow up appointment at her clinic for a confirmation test.
“Thankfully, no one tested reactive today so far,” Sinclair said.
Sinclair has a background in healthcare administration and opened the Great Milwaukee Center for Health and Wellness in August 2015, offering primary care, STD and Hiv testing, transgender care and more.
For those who engage in high risk sexual behaviors, the clinic offers Pre-Exposure Medication Management also known as PrEp.
“PrEp is offered to those who face an elevated risk of HIV, such as prostitutes, people who don’t use condoms and those who in relationships with an HIV positive person,” she explained.
She said the clinic prescribes medication to these high-risk patients to prevent them from contracting HIV.
“The medicine is taken daily like birth control pills, and when used correctly, it’s 96 percent effective.”
Sinclair feels economic disparities exist in Milwaukee for people of color, and this prevents people from accessing healthcare.
“Not having jobs can lead people to enter the sex trade to survive,” she said, adding that African American MSM population is the most vulnerable to contracting HIV.
“Both men and women are in the sex trade and the reason we call it MSM is because not all men identify as being gay.”
At about noon, Shaquan Downey stopped by before class and chatted with Sinclair and her co-worker Kalila Campbell.
“I have a nurse practitioner but not a doctor, so I may go to the Greater Milwaukee Center because I’m considering birth control, which my nurse can’t prescribe,” said Downey.
Sinclair said lack of coverage is a generational problem and one of the reasons HIV isn’t properly diagnosed on time.
“If your parents lack primary care, you may too, and those people may ignore symptoms and wait until it’s too late,” she said.
“We accept insurance, but we help people who lack insurance by setting them up with Badgercare, for example.”
The five organizations displayed their tables until about 3 p.m.
“I hope we can come back next year because the turnout is great,” Sinclair said.
Visit www.NationalBlackAIDSDay.org for more on National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day for more information.