Open Hand Steadfast in the Fight Against HIV/AIDS
By Matthew Pieper, Executive Director
Open Hand’s legacy of service began over 27 years ago when our founder, Michael Edwards, was joined by several of his friends to cook meals for neighbors who were dying of HIV/AIDS. From that noble and caring effort, a nutrition agency was born that has since grown to become the primary provider of medically-appropriate meals and nutrition education for our friends and neighbors in metro Atlanta living with HIV/AIDS. While the prognosis for individuals infected with HIV has dramatically improved, sadly this disease is still a crisis for our community.Consider these facts:
- According to the Southern AIDS Coalition, Atlanta ranks #1 in the country for the rate of new cases of HIV/AIDS.
- 2013 Atlanta EMA data shows between 1,400 and 1,500 individuals are diagnosed with HIV each year.
- Our colleagues at Grady Infectious Disease Clinic report that 2 to 3 patients are diagnosed every day there, and roughly half already have AIDS.
- Total diagnosed in Georgia is 51,676 including adults and adolescents age 13 and above. 30, 953 of these individuals reside in Atlanta.
For people with compromised immune systems, nutrition is vital to managing their health: Studies document that people living with HIV/AIDS who are food insecure are less likely to have undetectable viral loads; have lower CD4 counts; and are more likely to miss primary care appointments needed to monitor their health.
Unfortunately, apathy regarding HIV/AIDS is a reality, and while financial contributions and time committed to caring for those infected with the virus has waned, Open Hand’s commitment to staying the course and being a vital community resource will never waver.
Today, Open Hand provides health-promoting meals, market baskets and nutrition supplements to over 1,000 individuals living with an HIV/AIDS. In addition, our registered dietitians regularly provide medical nutrition therapy in five infectious disease clinics throughout the city. What’s more, Open Hand continues to stand with other advocates in championing the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS and strategically planning the allocation of federal dollars to ensure that services are in place to address the treatment and care of our neighbors facing the challenges of living with the disease.
To that end I want to share with you some of our recent work on behalf of the HIV/AIDS community:
- I was privileged to address the Presidential Advisory Committee on HIV/AIDS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advisory Council when they convened this past summer. I represented over 20 nonprofit nutrition agencies from across the country who have joined together to form the Food is Medicine Coalition. The message highlighted why food and other nutrition interventions are vital to the care and treatment of PLWHA. My complete address is included here. Download
- With the support of the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, I was honored to travel to Washington, DC this year with advocates from all over the country as part of AIDS Watch 2015. Our shared goal was to meet with legislators and their staff members to help them further understand why the preservation of Ryan White Treatment and Modernization Act and Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS is a wise investment of federal dollars in caring for PLWHA and ultimately, stopping the progression of HIV/AIDS altogether.
- Similarly, with funding generously provided by the MAC AIDS Foundation, I joined with Food is Medicine Coalition leadership in Washington, DC in early September to share succinct research data with policymakers that supports why food and nutrition services is an essential medical intervention. One of the highlights of this trip was a meeting with Ronald Valdiserri, MD, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health, Infectious Diseases & Director, Office of HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policy, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. Dr. Valdiserri wields tremendous influence in Washington, as Congress looks to him to make recommendations on policies regarding funding allocations related to the Ryan White funding as well as Center for Medicaid/Medicare Services (CMS). We shared data from two different nutrition studies that underscored the cost savings that are realized when proper nutrition services are in place, i.e. reduced hospital stays and readmissions. We urged him to be a champion for food and nutrition services when reviewing Ryan White and CMS allocations, and conveyed that we would like to be a resource for him in his work.
- Recently the Presidential Advisory Committee on HIV/AIDS published an updated national strategic plan addressing the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS over the next decade. In response to this plan, Fulton County commissioners have wisely formed an HIV/AIDS Task Force to develop Fulton County’s Strategy for HIV Prevention. To insure that the provision of food and nutrition services is a priority for this strategic plan as well as to protect and preserve other services, I accepted an invitation by Fulton County Commissioner Bob Ellis to be his appointee on this task force. Our goal is to develop a county-wide strategic plan that can serve as a model for other counties in Georgia, with goals to:
- Reduce HIV incidence
- Increase access to care and optimizing health outcomes
- Reduce HIV-related health disparities
- Achieve a more coordinated response to HIV/AIDS in Fulton County
- I am also proud to share that our Director of Grantsmanship and Outcomes Tracking, Katherine Lovell, is once again chairing the Comprehensive Planning Committee of the Metropolitan Atlanta Area Ryan White Health Services Planning Council. Its purpose is to set the overall strategies to address both federal and local priorities to increase access to quality health and support services for people living with HIV/AIDS. Through this role, Katherine also participates on the Integrated Plan Committee with both prevention and treatment representatives from Fulton County and the state. Additionally, she serves on the Prevention and Care Committee of the Fulton County AIDS Task Force and the HOPWA Providers Council.
I am deeply appreciative to so many people in Atlanta who support Open Hand’s work in the HIV/AIDS community. Some of our volunteers have been coming to our campus for two decades specifically to be of service to those living with the disease. And we continue to be grateful to our funders who earmark their donations for the nutrition services we provide. In return, I can commit that Open Hand will always stand for doing the right thing…and that most certainly includes being of service to those affected by HIV/AIDS.