ASAP Closing the Gap Coordinator Ayakao Watkins

ASAP Closing the Gap Coordinator Ayakao Watkins

High Rates with African Americans

HIV/AIDS is taking a monumental toll on the African-American population in the U.S. There’s a major disparity with the disproportionate numbers of those who are infected and die.

“Blacks account for more new HIV infections, people estimated to be living with HIV disease, and HIV-related deaths than any other racial/ethnic group in the U.S,” according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, “The rate of new HIV infection in African Americans is 8 times that of whites based on population size,” and “Gay and bisexual men account for most new infections among African Americans; young gay and bisexual men aged 13 to 24 are the most affected of this group.”

HIV/AIDS is also hard hitting for African-American communities in Florida, the state that “ranked first nationally in the number of new HIV infection cases diagnosed in 2013,” reports the Florida Department of Health. The department further states, “In Florida as of 2013, blacks still constitute a majority of HIV-related deaths (58%, 540 of 935 deaths).”

Mission of Education

Ayakao Watkins, MSPA  has served as our ASAP Closing the Gap coordinator addressing HIV and the disparities of racial and ethnic populations for the past four years. She has a longtime history of ministry, an education in public administration specializing in community development, and experience in health disparities work with the Center for Health Equity. “I’ve always been a change agent and community mobilizer,” Watkins said.

In her role at ASAP, she’s dedicated to community education about HIV/AIDS, including speaking with her fellow pastors and their congregations; prevention, serving as a certified tester; and support, leading specialized In the Mix support groups for HIV-diagnosed women. She shared, “HIV has become a passion for me. I see the stigma and people hurting and I want to make an impact. Blacks are one of the fastest-growing populations affected, and that includes the children, mamas, caregivers and other family members.”

173272751One of her ongoing efforts to shed light on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS with African-American communities is helping to organize outreach and education around National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. This year, she collaborated with ASAP, Empath Health and area churches and organizations on a new Ujima Weekend Fest to be held on February 6 and 7 in St. Pete. It’ll feature HIV and other health screenings, information, a special church service, entertainment and more.

“Florida is number one (in new cases). We need to do something different. Our goals with this event are to get the dialogue started on HIV; raise awareness of HIV testing; and de-stigmatize HIV in the black community, as some in my community still think only white or gay people get it or that if they get it there’s nothing they can do about it because they don’t have health insurance. We want the youth to start thinking about and understanding HIV early and we’re using the arts to make a social and cultural change. I also want people who are HIV-positive and felt no hope to be able to come and get back in to care,” Watkins said.

She advocates for churches to talk about HIV/AIDS and has taken her message to those she ministers. “Some churches have been reluctant to discuss it and there’s ignorance and we need to change that. I used to do a sermon on HIV, condoms, abstinence and testing along with distributing condoms on Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. My job is to give people the tools they need to be safe and healthy. I’m trying to reach the youth because that’s how you prevent it. We want to stop this thing for the next generation,” she said.

Barriers to Care

Although the care is available, people many times are hesitant to access care for fear of how they’ll be treated, explains Watkins. “The care and resources are there. Very often the people who provide care have pre-conceived ideas of those with HIV. With some of our clients, it’s the whole mental process of what they think others will think of them. I’ve had some clients feel like they were being treated differently by their healthcare providers,” she said.

Support Groups Empower Women

One of her most rewarding experiences is facilitating the In the Mix women’s support groups. These CDC evidence-based interventions are geared toward minority women, however everyone is accepted. The sessions include videos, discussion, decision making, action planning as well as camaraderie.

97781148“These are peer-to-peer groups and we try to affect healthy behaviors, maintain medical adherence and provide emotional support. We go beyond the disease state to find out who these women really are. We do a Who am I exercise to help them express, ‘I have HIV but HIV doesn’t have me.’ Many women are dealing with betrayal, depression and other emotions, and in the groups they form relationships and take care of each other. To hear them say that this is the first time in their lives they’re feeling unashamed and comfortable talking about it and to see their motivation to do something different is amazing,” Watkins said.

Join our Ujima Weekend Fest on February 6 and 7 at Sanderlin Neighborhood Center and Empath Health in St. Pete. For more information call 727-328-5520.

Ready to know your status? Go to our Clearwater and St. Pete ASAP locations or find our mobile unit in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco Counties to get free, rapid and confidential testing.