NORTH LAWNDALE — Chicago’s annual AIDS Run & Walk will be broken into several local events in neighborhoods this year, helping to minimize crowds and bringing HIV advocacy into communities most impacted by the disease, like North Lawndale.
The event, which usually draws thousands of participants, is typically held at Soldier Field. This year’s route will go through Douglass Park, making it easier for West Side families and caregivers to get involved, raise awareness and raise money to help end the HIV epidemic, advocates say.
The AIDS Run & Walk kicks off Monday at Douglass Park, with other events in Uptown, Lakeview, Dunbar Park, Washington Park, Hyde Park and the Loop. For more information, to participate or make a donation, go to aidsrunwalk.org
“I think that it’s a lot more accessible to our community to have it in the park,” said Bijou Hunt, director of Mount Sinai Hospital Infectious Disease Center, which houses the HIV programs.
Caregivers and participants will also show up in full force for the run, Hunt said, which “gives us a chance to do some education about HIV.”
North Lawndale, East Garfield Park and West Garfield Park are among the neighborhoods with the highest rates of HIV infections and the highest number of people living with HIV in the city, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health. They also experience some of the most severe economic hardship.
Mount Sinai routinely screens for HIV for any patient getting bloodwork in the emergency department, which Hunt said helps identify a lot of HIV-positive cases among people seeking other kinds of care.
Once a case is identified, patients get access to medical treatment as well as case management and mental health services.
“The community that we serve, they demonstrate very high incidence and prevalence of both HIV and Hepatitis C. But also a lot of members of our community do not seek routine or regular care,” Hunt said. “And we know that our African American population suffers a disproportionate burden of HIV.”
Much of the hospital’s HIV work is funded by grants, but Sinai depends on money raised by the AIDS Run & Walk for things that fall outside the operating budget.
Sinai’s programs not funded by grants help HIV patients get access to food, warm clothing for the winter and transportation for “addressing the social determinants of health.”
“If you have a patient who’s struggling with housing, or to pay bills or find food, that’s going to be a more pressing concern for them than making sure that they have their medication refill or attending their appointments,” Hunt said.
Those social determinants of health can create deep disparities among those suffering from many types of disease, according to Simone Koehlinger, chief program officer of the AIDS Foundation Chicago that organizes the event. The run helps highlight how homophobia, transphobia, race, income and access to health care all impact the spread of HIV in Chicago, she said.
“There are people who could easily have been able to prevent HIV if they’d had a decent place to live, had better access to food, to a job, and to a neighborhood that was safe to be in,” Koehlinger said.
Having more presence in the neighborhoods also helps dispel some of the stigma and silence around HIV, further fueled by misinformation about the disease and its treatments, Koehlinger said.
People being treated for HIV can achieve an undetectable viral load that makes it functionally impossible to transmit the disease. People with HIV can also live full, long lives thanks to medical innovations, and people vulnerable to it can prevent getting HIV with pre-exposure prophylaxis medications, she said.
The run will also showcase the unsung beauty of North Lawndale and give residents an opportunity to celebrate their own neighborhood, said Dr. Nancy Glick who leads Sinai’s Infectious Disease Center.
“People will come here and see not just what’s in the newspaper every day,” she said. “I think that it is beneficial for the community to be recognized. We have this beautiful park right here in North Lawndale.”
And since Lawndale is an area disproportionately impacted by HIV, it is a neighborhood where the resilience of people living with the disease and the advancements in HIV treatments should be recognized, she said.
“This really provides an opportunity to come together as a community to celebrate all the successes, to celebrate people who are living very full lives and doing well,” Glick said.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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