Session addresses awareness of HIV/AIDS in McKeesport

| Monday, March 3, 2014, 10:57 a.m.

Advocates for HIV/AIDS awareness in McKeesport are keeping themselves informed on how they can best serve their community.

“We're trying to get our outreach volunteers to be knowledgeable,” co-chair Monique Peterson said of Saturday's HIV 101 training course at Zion Baptist Church. “We want to be educated and updated on everything — medication, statistics.”

Sabira Bushra, executive director of the Partnership for Minority HIV/AIDS Prevention, updated more than a dozen city volunteers during a two-hour workshop that reviewed statistics and resources while identifying community needs.

“All interventions and preventions are not the same,” Bushra explained. “They're not targeted to the same people.”

Bushra, a certified trainer for HIV counseling and testing, has 22 years of service in regional and state planning councils for HIV/AIDS mitigation. She has been part of awareness and prevention programs serving a range of demographics that includes McKeesport's racial and socio-economic breakdown.

Although statistics “aren't everything,” Bushra said, it's important to recognize how disproportionately HIV affects black Americans when compared to other races.

Data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2010 indicates that 44 percent of new HIV infections affect black (non-Hispanic) individuals, despite that demographic accounting for just 12 percent of the U.S. population. HIV was the fourth-leading cause of death for black men and women, ages 25-44, in 2009. Young, black adults were ranked higher than any other racial group in that age bracket.

According to 2010 census data, 31.9 percent of McKeesport's population is black and 4.6 percent is biracial.

McKeesport's Community Partners for HIV Prevention has been hosting formal National HIV Testing Day for at least 10 years, but advocates have been reaching out to city residents for more than two decades.

“When we stared, we went into bars, stood on corners and talked to people,” co-chair Barbara Williams said. “Now people are aware of what we're doing. They're passing on information by word. People know who they can come to us for help.”

The Community Partners for HIV Prevention consists of volunteers from Zion Baptist Church, First Step Recovery Homes, McKeesport Healthier Communities PartnerSHIP, McKeesport Hospital Foundation and the Partnership for Minority HIV/AIDS Prevention.

With medical professionals, counselors, educators and other advocates in the mix, the organization reaches out to individuals who are unaware or afraid of their risk for HIV.

Bushra's field work has determined that the No. 1 challenge in HIV/AIDS prevention is stigma.

“Stigma is what prevents people who think they may be HIV positive from being tested,” she said. “They don't want people to think they are even at risk of being HIV positive.”

Mother-to-child transmission has been virtually eradicated in industrialized nations because of the existence of antiretroviral drugs. So, because HIV is most often spread through sexual intercourse and sharing needles for drugs, patients fear they will be judged by people in their community.

In a small community such as McKeesport, Bushra said, people may be afraid to go to the doctor because they share a physician with much of their extended family or because the medical secretary attends their church.

“People are afraid that they're going to be found out,” she said. “People are going to label them and they are going to be shunned … and they would rather ignore their issues.”

McKeesport's Community Partners for HIV Prevention is charged with eliminating that stigma and encouraging residents to assess their risk for HIV.

“If you don't know your status for HIV and you don't know your partner's status for HIV, then you are at risk,” Bushra said. She encouraged participation in HIV testing programs that include pre-test and post-test counseling services, so that patients know what lies ahead, regardless of the test's outcome.

Testing and counseling should lead patients to proper medical care, Bushra said. That is what's needed to prevent and HIV infection from progressing to full-blown AIDS, a condition she said is rarely seen among those who seek prompt medical care, because of modern advances in pharmaceutical science.

McKeesport's Community Partners for HIV Prevention will host National HIV Testing Day services on June 28 at Zion Baptist Church. It is still in planning stages, but is expected to start at noon. Details will be released as the event approaches.

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1956, or

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