Dr. Stella Safo, an HIV primary care physician and one of the country’s leading voices in the call for improving racial equity in healthcare, will speak at an upcoming community breakfast recognizing National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
Sponsored by The University of Toledo Medical Center Ryan White Program and The University of Toledo Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the event will be held from 8 to 9 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 9, at the Glass City Center in downtown Toledo.
Registration for the free public event is required and can be completed via the UTMC website.
While treatment for HIV has improved significantly over the last three decades, the disease remains a serious public health threat — and one that disproportionally affects Black Americans.
Despite making up less than 14% of the total U.S. population, Black people accounted for 42% of the 35,000 new HIV diagnoses in 2020.
Safo, who earned both a medical degree and master of public health degree from Harvard, said there are a number of factors that feed that disparity, including the legacy of how Americans first came to know about HIV and AIDS.
“The people we saw on TV in the ’80s tended to be white, gay men,” she said. “That sent the message that this disease is not as prevalent among women and certain minoritized communities and it focused resources on that group.”
Persistent social inequities, such as community disinvestment and limited access to healthcare, also play a role, she said.
Dr. Joan Duggan, an infectious disease specialist at UTMC and medical director of the hospital’s Ryan White Program, said addressing those disparities and barriers to care is critical, both for the health of our community and to make progress in reducing the overall spread of HIV.
“This is an important discussion. HIV can affect anyone, but since the very early days of the epidemic, certain communities have been much more likely to be affected by HIV,” Duggan said. “We need to reach these communities and show them we are here to support them. Dr. Safo brings a unique perspective and is a very valuable voice in this discussion.”
With treatment to reduce the amount of virus in their blood, people living with HIV can enjoy a normal life expectancy and, importantly, cannot spread the virus to others.
For those at a higher risk of HIV, pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, can nearly eliminate someone’s risk of contracting HIV through sex.
But good as they are, these drugs are only effective if they’re available to those who need them.
Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, show only 9% of Black people who were eligible for PrEP were prescribed it, compared to 65% of white people.
“I think the central message around testing and prevention is we have the solutions, we just have to have the political, social and cultural will to implement them,” Safo said. “We need to meet people where they are, ensure they have support and access, and enact policies that normalize HIV testing.”
In addition to her clinical practice, Safo is an assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and in 2021 founded Just Equity for Health, which uses advocacy, education and care model design to ensure equitable care delivery.
“There are certain things that can be made worse when we look away,” Safo said. “I want to help focus our gaze on things that are important, and each of us can do things that help in this particular area. It’s not just academics, policymakers and healthcare providers — it’s also the community.”
The Ryan White Program at UTMC offers high-quality comprehensive care for individuals and families affected by HIV/AIDS. The program offers HIV primary care, mental health counseling, case management, advocacy and HIV testing in Lucas County and the surrounding area.
UTMC also offers nutritional and financial counseling and has additional funding resources, including the Ann Wayson Locher Memorial Fund for HIV Care, to help patients with emergency financial assistance, food assistance, transportation assistance and other needs.