By any measure, AIDS Walk Los Angeles is an impressive show of solidarity and activism: Thirty thousand people will congregate in West Hollywood this Sunday, average citizens alongside movie stars and political figures, who will reiterate the importance of testing for a treating and funding research to eventually eradicate the disease.
But even as throngs of people walk through the city’s streets, offering a visual symbol of determination to fight HIV/AIDS, funding for organizations like AIDS Project Los Angeles, (APLA) which sponsors AIDS Walk, is drying up — along with services these organizations once provided.
Last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed $52 million in funding for AIDS programs — the same funding he vetoed last year, which the legislature had tried to restore. All of the state money that remains will go towards HIV treatment, not towards prevention or testing.
As the economic downturn has led to cuts at the state level, private donors have also held tighter to their purse strings. Last year, even as more people than ever took part in AIDS Walk, the event raised $3 million, down from $3.9 million the previous year. Other local AIDS organizations have reported similar drop-offs in fundraising.
“We’re looking at a pretty bleak funding picture,” said Phil Curtis, director of government affairs for APLA. Last year, the state cuts cost APLA about $1.9 million of an operating budget of less than $20 million, leading the organization to reduce services and lay off 20 percent of its staff. “Cuts have had a dramatic effect on everyone’s funding across the county and the state.”
In part, AIDS programs have become victims of their own success. Whereas in the early days of the epidemic, when an HIV-positive diagnosis was a death sentence, effective drug treatments now allow people to live for many years with the virus. Every year, as more people more people get tested and receive treatment, there are more people living with HIV/AIDS every year, and the cost of treating them continues to rise.
That growing cost of providing treatment for people with HIV has squeezed out funding for prevention services, which save money over the long term but yield less tangible short-term results. For 15 years, the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s California AIDS Clearinghouse published educational materials for distribution through the state. But funding for the program, which had come from the state Department of Health Services, was eliminated in last year’s budget cuts.
“HIV prevention has been drastically reduced across the board, especially for things like social marketing which educates people about HIV prevention and safer sex,” said Quentin O’Brien, director of health and mental health services for the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. “Things are tighter. That’s the reality.”
Schwarzenegger’s veto of prevention services funding came on the heels of a jarring new study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the rates of HIV in urban areas. The study polled residents in 21 U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, and found that approximately one in five men who has sex with men (MSM) was infected with HIV, and nearly half of them were not aware of their HIV-status until they were tested during the study. The rates for African-American and Latino MSM were even higher, while MSM under 30 were even less likely to know they were infected.
“It is critical that we reach these young men early in their lives with HIV prevention and testing services and continue to make these vital services available as they become older,” said Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention.
Several days after the CDC study came out, the federal Department of Health and Human Resources announced a $30 million grant to support HIV prevention, as part of the presdient’s National HIV/AIDS Strategy in 12 major cities, including Los Angeles.
Curtis said federal government grants remain one of the only sources of stable funding, and APLA had stepped-up efforts to go after such grants.
“We’ve deliberately sought out large government grants,” Curtis said. “That’s the only funding stream that you can rely on to do the type of work you need to do.”
With dwindling resources, though, competition for funding is growing fiercer. Last month, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, another Los Angeles-based AIDS organization, staged the first ever California AIDS Walk just three weeks before AIDS Walk Los Angeles, which is the biggest AIDS fundraiser in the city and APLA’s largest source of private funding. AIDS Project Los Angeles sued AHF, but APLA officials said they did not expect the competing event to effect revenue from this year’s AIDS walk.
Simply, there is less money for HIV-prevention to go around, which, according to Curtis, will lead to a rise in infection rates.
“When you see a leveling off or a drop in prevention funding, you see a leveling off or rise in infection rates,” Curtis said. “I don’t know if we’ve seen that yet, but I assume we will see an increase in new infection rates.”
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