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Birmingham restaurants helping support services for Alabamians living with HIV/AIDS

Dinning Out For Life

Birmingham restaurants are participating in an annual fundraising event that helps support services for people living with HIV/AIDS in Alabama. This is the Magic City’s 15th year celebrating Dining Out For Life, a national event also observed in part of Alabama, taking place Thursday, April 25.

AIDS Alabama

Proceeds garnered during breakfast, lunch and dinner from participating eateries in Birmingham assist the organization AIDS Alabama, based in the Magic City, to provide life-sustaining services to those with the illnesses. Restaurants include Big Bad Breakfast, Rojo, MELT, Moe’s Original BBQ and more venues listed here.

According to its website, AIDS Alabama devotes its energy and resources statewide to helping people with HIV/AIDS live healthy, independent lives and works to prevent the spread of HIV. This includes testing and community support plus mental health and physical health services.

Gina Mallisham is the Development Director of AIDS Alabama. She explained treatment is also a focus at the organization, which includes the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP. This involves taking a specific HIV medicine to reduce the risk of getting HIV through sex or injection drug use.

Mallisham explained PrEP is a key component in the Prevention Access Campaign's Undetectable Equals Untransmittable (U=U) initiative, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention supports, agreeing there is "effectively no risk" of sexually transmitting HIV when on treatment and undetectable.

“PrEP is what makes this possible for us,” she said. “U=U: Undetectable Equals Untransmittable. It’s a campaign explaining how the sexual transmission of HIV can be stopped. It means that people living with HIV, who are actively engaged in treatment and maintain an undetectable level of the virus, are unable to sexually transmit HIV. In other words, if someone has an undetectable viral load, they cannot sexually transmit HIV to others.”

Currently, there are two FDA-approved daily oral medications for PrEP. A long-acting injectable form of PrEP has also been approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA).

According to HIV.gov, PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by about 99% when taken as prescribed. Among people who inject drugs, it reduces the risk by at least 74% when taken as prescribed. However, PrEP is much less effective when it isn't taken consistently. Alabama agencies proving PrEP can be found here.

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Besides transportation, educations, community services and other resources, Mallisham said a tenant at AIDS Alabama is that “housing is healthcare.” She explained the state uses the only federal program dedicated to the housing needs of people living with HIV. It’s called Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS or HOPWA for short.

“Folks that are living with HIV and experiencing homelessness, or lack of stable housing, are more likely to delay in getting care, which is fair. That’s not a priority when you're not sure where your next meal will come from. We've got over 400 residents of Alabama relying on HOPWA services.”

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Mallisham said AIDS Alabama also provides several other housing services, including permanent housing, rapid re-housing and rental assistance.

“We also have LGBTQ youth housing, which is the first of its kind in the state in our Way Station. We also work with other organizations and clinic spaces, like 1917 Clinic, to house chronically homeless or ill individuals. We have rectory housing, youth overnight and rural housing,’ she explained. “This is more than an advocacy and prevention hub with services. They are more than life extending. They're literally lifesaving services for folks that are experiencing homelessness.”

The Southern U.S., including the Yellowhammer State, accounts for approximately 38% of the U.S. population but represented more than half (52%) of all new HIV diagnoses in 2021, according to findings from AIDSVu.org, which is an interactive online mapping tool that visualizes the impact of the HIV epidemic on communities across the United States. AIDSVu.org also reports that in 2021, there were 14,436 people living with HIV in Alabama, and 625 people were newly diagnosed with HIV. Meantime, AIDS Alabama reports the state has the 11th highest rate of new HIV diagnoses in the country.

AIDS Alabama

“It's especially disproportionate for our communities of color,” Mallisham explained. “Black Americans in the South represent half of all the new HIV diagnoses in the region, and that's despite only comprising about 90% of the Southern population. The South also has the highest poverty rate and the lowest median household income compared to other regions,” she continued. “Both of these are factors associated with poor health outcomes and can contribute to a higher concentration and not just HIV but other chronic diseases like diabetes.”

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Mallisham stressed the importance of HIV testing. AIDS Alabama offers free HIV testing, including rapid HIV testing with results available in 20 minutes.

“Testing is just the most important. I cannot say it enough times. Nearly 40% of new HIV infections are transmitted by people who don't know that they have the virus,” Mallisham explained. “And for people with undiagnosed HIV, testing is the first step in maintaining a healthy life and preventing transmission and overtaking is becoming virally suppressed, which is crucial. From the perspective of risk, more than a quarter of the new diagnoses in Alabama occur among young people aged 13 to 29,” she continued. “41% of our state high school students have reported being sexually active, and half reported having failed to use a condom during their last sexual encounter. Another 80% of them have never been tested before.”

Mallisham said Alabama residents are owed to be well-informed on HIV/AIDS so that they can celebrate autonomy. She said scientific studies have proven sexual risk avoidance programs are abstinence-only programs, which don't work in reducing sexual activity.

AIDS Alabama

“We work with local schools to provide medically accurate and age-appropriate HIV and STI prevention education in all 67 of Alabama's counties [and] comprehensive Sex Ed,” she explained. “It gives young people, adolescents, the information that they need to understand their bodies and their gender identity and their sexuality to build and maintain healthy and safe relationships and engaging in healthy conversations and decision making around sex.”

Testing is accessible, no matter where Alabamians might live in the state, according to Mallisham. Free, confidential testing and other available services to residents can be found here.

Those in Birmingham and other Alabamians have the opportunity to help raise funds and awareness for HIV services, like testing, during Dining Out For Life. All it takes is dining at a participating restaurant during breakfast, lunch and dinner in the Magic City on Thursday, April 25. More information can be found here.

Organizers say volunteers to be Dining Out For Life Ambassadors or Table Captains are key to the success of this event. Those interested in volunteering can contact Gina Mallisham at gina.mallisham@aidsalabama.org or by calling 205.239.9892.

Baillee Majors is the Morning Edition host and a reporter at Alabama Public Radio.
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