It was standing room only on the evening of Wednesday, December 9th, as hundreds gathered at Harlem’s historic National Black Theatre as hundreds gathered to commemorate World AIDS Day 2009 during a festive program presented by the Harlem HIV AIDS Services Consortium (Iris House, SAGE, Canaan Baptist Church, Bailey House, Inc., UPTOWN Healthlink and Copasetic Women), in partnership with North General Hospital’s Department of Special Services (formerly Department of HIV/AIDS). The theme of this year’s program was “Removing Barriers, Addressing Stigma.” The program highlighted the challenges that prevent Harlem residents from getting tested for HIV/AIDS, seeking medical care, and disclosing their HIV status to their loved ones. WBLS (107.5 FM) radio personality Dr. Bob Lee (see photo) served as the event’s master of ceremonies. Speakers included the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Dr. Monica Sweeney, Debra Levine, vice president of community relations for the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, and Dr. Samuel Daniel, president and CEO of North General Hospital.
Highlights from the four-hour celebration included a rousing gospel performance by the ARC Choir, and a lively oldies-but-goodies hip-hop concert by rapper Doug E. Fresh and the legendary DJ Hollywood. In between speeches, DJ Passion kept the party going with her smooth blend of hip-hop and R&B selections. Renaissance Healthcare Network provided free HIV testing and counseling throughout the evening, both inside and outside of the theater (in their mobile testing van).
Concerning HIV stigma and the impact it has on families, Dr. Bob Lee told the crowd, “I have, myself, been affected by HIV/AIDS, having lost my brother to the disease years ago.” When asked what would help address and eradicate HIV/AIDS stigma in the community, Dr. Lee added, “The media – especially radio and television — needs to do more to increase awareness about getting tested for HIV/AIDS and removing the stigma surrounding it, otherwise we are going to have a lost generation of young people due to ignorance about the disease and how to stop it.”
Rapper Doug E. Fresh said he’d like to see more celebrities like himself lend their talent, time and voice to this movement, noting that ”by lending their own voices to the promotion of HIV/AIDS awareness, entertainers, who already have a captive audience, can get the message to those who need to hear it most.”
Concerning the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the Harlem community and what can be done to decrease the stigma associated with the diagnosis, Dr. Monica Sweeney said, ”The issue of HIV/AIDS needs to be confronted everyday not just on World AIDS Day.” She added, “The key to decreasing the high rate of late term diagnosis of AIDS in the Harlem community is to get people tested, diagnosed, linked to care, and insuring that they remain in care.”
Reflecting on the critical role that North General Hospital has played in addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Dr. Samuel Daniel, the Hospital’s president and CEO said, ”North General Hospital has long been a leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS in the Harlem Community and the City at large.” Noting that the Hospital has been a New York City AIDS designated Hospital for nearly eighteen years, Dr. Daniel added, “Our Department of Special Services, which cares for patients with this condition at our hospital, has long been staffed by leaders in the field of infectious diseases and the general management of patients infected with HIV and Hepatitis C.”
Dr. Daniel concluded his remarks by acknowledging the hard work of all of North General’s staff who worked on the event, and the generosity of the event’s corporate sponsors, including Gilead Sciences, Palace Pharmacy, 161st Pharmacies, Orasure Technologies, Abbott Laboratories, Merck, and Bioscripts Specialty Pharmacy.
Gloria Searson, LCSW, administrative director of the Department of Special Services and Dr. Michael Serlin, the Department’s clinical director, closed the evening’s festivities by emphasizing, “We (the Department of Special Services) and our community partners are committed to educating the community about HIV risks and prevention, and testing everyone who is interesting in knowing their status. The sooner patients get tested, if they are HIV positive, the sooner they enter care, and the greater the likelihood is they will be able to live a long and healthy life. Ultimately the whole goal of all of the work we do is to keep our patients healthy, which should be a common goal for everyone in the Harlem community.”
For more information about North General Hospital’s Department of Special Services please call 212-423-2741.