Meet the young man fighting to end HIV in Fulton

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By the time Daniel Driffin got on the phone, he had just wrapped up a conversation about HIV with the Fulton County Health Department after a whirlwind week that took him to Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention and South Africa for the International AIDS Conference.

Driffin’s speech on July 27 marked the first time in 16 years that HIV/AIDS was addressed at the Democratic Convention, and by an openly gay, HIV-positive person at that, according to the Pride.

At 30, Driffin already has an impressive array of work around advocacy, education and healthcare for people living with HIV and AIDS. In fact, he was named to the POZ 100 in 2013 for his work on HIV issues. Driffin is also the co-founder of groups dealing with black gay and bisexual men and HIV, including Thrive SS, Undetectables Atlanta, and the Young Black Gay Men’s Leadership Initiative.

Driffin, a health educator in Atlanta working on a masters degree in public health at the Morehouse School of Medicine, also serves as the co-chair of the Fulton County Task Force on HIV/AIDS. The task force recently released a comprehensive plan with the ambitious goal of eliminating HIV in Fulton. (Atlanta currently ranks fifth in the nation for new HIV diagnoses.)

Driffin sat down with Project Q Atlanta to discuss his work, appearing at the Democratic Convention and what it will take to beat HIV in Fulton.

Tell us a little bit about how you got involved in this kind of advocacy work?

It started a little more than 10 years ago now. I think the earliest form of it was me participating at a drop-in center in the city I grew up in, Rochester, N.Y. And we had the MOCHA Project, and it stood for Men Of Color Health Awareness Project. And it was a CDC intervention targeted towards black gay men and transgender youth to really [address] HIV and STI.

I remember dropping in through my years during high school and it really sparked my interest in HIV and black gay men. I think after graduating college I just reconnected with that, prior to my first job at the community health clinic, as a community health center worker.

You’ve had a lot on your plate in the last two weeks, so let’s start with the International AIDS Conference. What was that experience like?

It was amazing. This is actually the [counts] third I attended. And you know it’s generally an amazing conversation, with many of the advocates doing the work within their area. And you know you can take things from what they do in their home community and you think of a way to adapt it for, you know, where you’re looking at. 

This conference really focused on key populations, so gay men, specifically men of color, transgender women, people who inject drugs, sex workers, high risk heterosexual women. So focusing on those priority or key populations, and really scaling up interventions like treatment and prevention. So ensuring people who live on HIV are viral-suppressed, ensuring PrEP services for people at risk for HIV, and really de-stigmatizing HIV through cultural competency and education, and other aspects like that.

Your DNC speech showed how important this work is to you. What was it like being on that platform and getting to talk to that huge crowd?

It was amazing and a real honor. I think as I get older and think about the Top Five moments, that would be definitely within that list.

You know, being able to address the people there at the convention, but more importantly, the people of the world. Just in the last couple of days my Facebook friendship request numbers have been through the roof. And [laughs] it’s the little things like that. But then the big things are, you know, the messages which follow, and it’s “I’ve been living with HIV for 20 plus years and I haven’t been able to tell anyone, but seeing you do that really helped me tell my mom or my dad.”

So things like that, that’s the impact. You know those are things which change a person. It really makes you want to do more.

The Task Force recommendations are really broad. How achievable are they? Is there going to be progress made on issues like homelessness and racism that impact people’s ability to access HIV care?

Yeah, I think the goals are achievable, especially when we like look at healthcare. …

You know but as we think programs and training, training and education, we’ll begin to address the racism that we’re seeing within the healthcare setting, especially for people living with HIV. I think as we go towards more targeted testing for key populations like black gay men, transgender women, and people who inject drugs, we will definitely see the numbers decrease.

I mean in a city like San Francisco they have easy access programs to get people on PrEP. San Francisco had less than 300 new HIV cases last year. Atlanta had 3,000.

That is astounding.

Yes, less than 300 in San Francisco and we had more than 3,000. You know, as a result of barriers. 

If you were ruler of the universe for a day, and could just fix how we deal with HIV/AIDS, how would that look?

I think the first thing would be to ensure people living with HIV you can access healthcare in a non-stigmatizing, non-biased place. I know many of our organizations say, “We have an open door policy.” But that’s truly not always the case. And I think it’s really difficult for individuals to see stigma or experience stigma if they don’t have a specific health condition.

So the first thing would be like to really destigmatize HIV care. Second I think, it would truly be not having barriers get in the way of care. Cost is one of these biggest factors when it comes to care, no matter for people with insurance or people without insurance. I think if cost were out of the way that would assist us a long way also.

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