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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Health officials launch 'Getting to Zero' fact-finding tour
by Matt Simonette
2018-01-10

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Speaking about the Getting to Zero project—a recent initiative launched by AIDS Foundation of Chicago ( AFC ) and other community collaborators to reduce new HIV infections—as well as increase viral suppression amongst those who are already infected, Project Manager Sara Semelka said success depends on cooperation from every corner of Illinois.

"We can get there, but we have to get there together," said Semelka, who's also AFC's prevention technology education manager.

Semelka and collatorators will be touring many Illinois locations throughout the winter to gather data on local requirements to put into place the Getting to Zero initiative, which was largely conceived in 2016. That was when an ad hoc group of health officials, service providers, community members and advocates began to conceptualize a plan that could eliminate new HIV infections and ensure full viral suppression amongst Illinoisans with HIV by 2027.

"A lot of other states and jurisdictions have started doing these sorts of plans—for example, New York State, San Francisco, Washington State, Houston," explained Semelka. "There are a lot now. You are starting to see a lot of these maps and blueprints for eliminating HIV, whether on a city or state level."

Getting to Zero stakeholders thought such a goal could be accomplished, given potential widespread use of both PrEP ( pre-exposure prophylaxis ) and TasP ( Treatment as Prevention ) interventions, both of which have been shown to significantly reduce the possibility of new HIV infections.

"If we increase the uptake of PrEP by 20 percentage points, and we increase viral suppression by 20 percentage points, those two things will kind of bend the curb down, where we can end the epidemic," Semelka added, clarifying that the concept would be reflected in no new infections and all persons living with HIV receiving medical treatment.

But getting those resources into the hands of every Illinoisan who needs them will be the overall challenge the stakeholders face. While PrEP is more widely used by middle-aged gay men, for example, providers and advocates have had difficulty making it available for populations that are most at risk for infection, among them young men of color who have sex with men.

Other variables remain to be addressed: availability of community health funding; community proximity to HIV resources; intersectional socio-economic challenges often faced by those at risk, including housing stability and immigration issues; and lingering stigmas about persons with HIV. The statewide tour is to gauge what challenges different parts of Illinois face. Cook County forums have already taken place, Semelka added.

"We have forums in each region of the state," she said. "It's not 'Chicago Getting to Zero.' It's 'Illinois Getting to Zero.' It's all of us together. So we're really trying to get perspectives, insights and wisdom from people living and affected by HIV, and the [healthcare] workforce from all over the state."

After the information is gathered, stakeholders will aggregate the data and present a five-year plan later in 2018.

"It really is possible to end HIV in Illinois," Semelka said. "I know it's easy to just say that, and I hope that brings hope to people. … We also are trying to keep in mind that HIV disproportionately affects our populations, and we have amazing treatment medications, but if they're not getting in the hands of people who need it, we're not going to end HIV."


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