People walk across the Blue Bridge in downtown Grand Rapids in support of The Grand Rapids Red Project. Photo via fb.com
A nonprofit is producing a fundraising walk downtown this Saturday to support its work on HIV prevention and care and to raise HIV awareness in the community.
Typically, the annual Walk to Stop HIV, formerly the AIDS Walk, has raised $5,000 to $7,000 for The Grand Rapids Red Project, but this year, the nonprofit has doubled its fundraising goal, hoping to garner $15,000 in donations.
The Walk to Stop HIV will take place at 10 a.m., and the route starts at Rosa Parks Circle.
Brian Keeley, development and volunteer coordinator for The Red Project, said the nonprofit underwent a re-branding last year and has been focused on substantially growing the organization’s presence and recognition in the community, which he thinks will help it reach its goal.
“We are focusing on re-connecting with everyone who has participated in the past and getting the word out," Keeley said. "Our agency has grown in the last three years and particularly in the last year — with that our connections and capacity have increased."
The Red Project provides services focused on preventing HIV and Hepatitis C transmission and drug overdose deaths.
Keeley said the money raised during the walk will specifically support activities such as free HIV testing, condom distribution and care services coordination.
He said most of The Red Project’s HIV program funding comes from the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services.
The nonprofit also receives funds from network180 for its overdose prevention work, and private foundations provide funding that covers most of the Clean Works syringe-access program.
Keeley said funding related to HIV is down nationally, but The Red Project is actually experiencing an increase due to the fundraising efforts of Steve Alsum, its executive director.
“Steve has been incredible and instrumental in achieving new grants from the state,” Keeley said.
He added that programs administered by The Red Project have been effective.
For example, he said when the Clean Works program started, the incidence rate for new HIV infections in Kent County related to injection drug use was at 25 percent. Today, it’s below 10 percent.
“It’s very clear that all of our services have a direct impact in the community,” he said.
However, the HIV prevalence rate in Kent County, which means the number of people living with HIV, has gone up each year.
There are about 1,100 people living with HIV in the county, and each year, another 40 to 60 people are diagnosed as HIV positive.
Keeley said the increased prevalence rate is tied to the success of HIV medications, which allow people with HIV to live longer.
He said The Red Project is focused on decreasing the incidence rate to zero.
“We want to get to zero new diagnosis each year, and we can, because we have the tools to do so,” he said.
Keeley said there are two tools available to prevent HIV transmission and many people aren’t aware of them.
The first is the medication HIV-positive individuals take.
“The medications for those living with HIV actually prevents transmission,” he said.
He said if care is started early on, the medications can reduce someone’s viral load to an undetectable level, which prevents transmission.
“That is why regular testing is crucial and the support for individuals to get into care and stay in care. So they live long healthy lives and have little to no risk of transmission to a partner,” he said.
The other medication is for individuals who are HIV negative.
PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, is a pill taken daily that prevents or reduces the risk of HIV transmission.
“That is why it was so important for us to change the name and focus around the walk,” Keeley said. “People need to be aware of the tools to prevent transmission.”
He said awareness is what is needed to end HIV.
“So many people are scared to get tested,” he said. “That fear is founded on the ‘80s and ‘90s information, not on the current information we have. Thirty-five years into the epidemic, the tools we have to address it are drastically different.”
Keeley said he hopes the Walk to Stop HIV will help raise awareness in the community about the tools to combat HIV transmission and the importance of regular testing and detection for anyone who's sexually active.
Registration for the walk is $35 for adults, $15 for teens and free for children.