Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Thurston County HIV/AIDS Prevention Funding Cut

By Janine Unsoeld

The Washington State Department of Health has confirmed that it will no longer fund some HIV prevention activities in Thurston County after June 30th. 
The state's approach to HIV prevention has been redefined and funding for it has been cut due to a recent state decision to focus scarce financial resources to areas in the state with a high number of cases, with first priority going to King County and Pierce County.
"Since March 2011, the state Department of Health has been working in partnership with the Washington State HIV Prevention Planning Group, a group of volunteers from a variety of backgrounds, to construct a framework for HIV prevention for the state. The strategies all aim to...significantly reduce new HIV infections in the state," says Maria Courogen, Office Director of Infectious Disease at the Washington State Department of Health.

 To meet this goal, there have been three main changes to prevention services: an increased focus on people living with HIV, an increased focus on populations and geographic areas with the most new HIV infections, and an increased alignment with a changing public health system.

 In 2012, the Washington State HIV Prevention Planning group established an ambitious goal to reduce - by 50% - the annual HIV incidence among gay and bisexual men living in Seattle by 2017.

Justin Taylor, HIV/AIDS prevention coordinator for the Pierce County AIDS Foundation, runs the Mpowerment Olympia program, which provides local HIV/AIDS testing in Thurston County.
The Mpowerment program received a portion of a $60,000 contract for prevention. The other parts of that funding went to pay for condom supplies for distribution, educational workshops, and HIV testing/counseling.

“This news, combined with the bleak overall funding landscape for behavioral interventions in Washington State, means that we can no longer continue to sustain the Mpowerment Olympia program…. It is our hope that the devoted and energetic community members that helped craft the success of the program will continue it as a volunteer run community group, if that is what the group wants,” says Taylor.
Mpowerment Olympia is an early intervention program focusing on young gay and bisexual men between the ages of 18 -29 years old. The group started in 2001 and is approved by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control as an empirically tested model proven to reduce risk among that demographic.

The group creates positive social connections for young men while promoting safer sex. Volunteers with the program hold drop-in social time at their community space in downtown Olympia, coordinate dances and events, and hand out about 1,000 safe sex kits per month at area bars, community events, college campuses, clubs, and clinics.
Courogen agrees that Mpowerment Olympia is a worthwhile program.
"The program provides great opportunities for youth leadership development and community building and we are supportive of their efforts to find funding to sustain their presence in the area. The Department of Health will be working to make sure that people with HIV in every county, including Thurston County, are diagnosed, linked to care, and have access to medication...." she said in an email today.

Taylor says he hopes to continue offering HIV/AIDS testing one day a week in Olympia. The free service is only offered to people deemed high risk: men who have sex with men and their partners, sex workers and their partners, injection users and their partners, those who have been recently diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease, and anyone who has had sexual contact with someone who is HIV positive. Taylor says the test is a quick process, using an oral swab, and no blood is drawn. Results are available in 20 minutes.

He also hopes to offer the group, if it continues, some support including continued free use of the meeting space, access to Mpowerment manuals, resource library materials, and some pre-purchased supplies.

“We work magic with the small amount of funds we would receive each year....This funding cut doesn’t just affect Thurston County. People come to Olympia from Grays Harbor, Mason County and Lewis counties. If we can’t continue, with community funding, those people will either not get tested, or have to drive all the way to Tacoma for services," says Taylor.

"The irony is the fact that we've proven in Thurston County that prevention does indeed have a direct impact on new infections....but it’s easier for the State to track the success of a biomedical approach and harder to track the work of education, information, and awareness. I fear we’re going in the wrong direction – giving up on prevention strategies is wrong. Three out of every four new infections are still gay/bi men in Washington State and many young folks don't realize HIV is still an issue,” says Taylor.

But Taylor isn't just waiting or relying on state government to educate young men about safe sex.

A 2009 graduate from The Evergreen State College, Taylor uses his media production and business leadership degree and skills toward his HIV/AIDS education work here in Olympia. He says it’s about understanding people, and being in a small town that affects people’s decision to get tested.

With his friend Sonny Nguyen, he created a spoken word film called, “How to Use a Condom,” which ended up winning the University of California Los Angeles’ Impact 2012 grand prize award. Nguyen lives in Olympia and is a volunteer with Mpowerment Olympia. The two filmed it on a whim in the space currently used by Mpowerment and were encouraged by friends to send the film into the contest.

The grand prize earned Taylor and Nguyen $5,000, which they donated to the Pierce County AIDS Foundation to support the Mpowerment program in Olympia. The film can be seen on The Hook Up, Mpowerment Olympia’s YouTube show, at

Taylor has also produced a 15 minute dark comedy called, “Tying the Knot,” about a closeted politician trying to find redemption through his secret, kinky relationship with a male prostitute. It recently showed at the Olympia Film Society. He also volunteers with Capital City Pride, which is Saturday, June 22 in downtown Olympia.

And with Taylor's help, a fundraiser for Mpowerment, the Red Ribbon Prevention Gayla, will be held on Saturday, June 22, 6:00 p.m., at the Olympia Ballroom, 116 Legion Way NW, Olympia. There will be a dinner, silent auction, dessert dash, 50/50 raffle, live performances and presentations from local LGBTQ community leaders. Contact or go to for ticket information.

For more information or to learn how to support the activities of Mpowerment, go to: or Mpowerment Olympia is located at 317 4th Avenue East, 4th Floor, Olympia, (360) 352-2375. No-cost, rapid and confidential HIV testing is on Fridays 12:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m. and by appointment.

Free, rapid HIV/AIDS testing is also available through the Thurston County Public Health and Social Services Department at 522 Franklin St SE, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 2:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m. Their entrance is on the Legion Way side of the building.

For more information about Capital City Pride, go to


According to the Washington State Department of Health, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) attacks the immune system, causing deficiency or damage in the immune system. HIV damages the body's ability to fight diseases and infections.

HIV infection leads to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Without a healthy, functioning immune system, a person may become vulnerable to infections by bacteria, other viruses and disease-causing organisms. These infections may cause life threatening illnesses.

Nationally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that approximately 47,500 people were newly infected with HIV in 2010.

In Washington, the first case of AIDS was diagnosed in 1982. Recently, the number of new HIV cases in Washington has remained steady, about 550 new cases per year, on average. More than 18,000 people in Washington have been diagnosed with HIV disease. Over 5,000 people have died as a result of the disease. Treatment for HIV disease is both effective and widely available. Most people with HIV survive long after diagnosis.

By the end of 2011, more than 11,000 people were reported to be living with HIV across Washington State. Between 2007 and 2011, statewide HIV incidence estimates ranged from 390 to 541.
Data indicates that four out of five recent HIV infections are among males; three out of four are gay or bisexual men; roughly half reside in King County, and more than one third are gay/bisexual men who reside in the city of Seattle.

For more information, contact the Washington State Department of Health, Infectious Disease Assessment Unit, (360) 236-3455, or go to: