For Derrick Webb, a student at Dillard University in New Orleans, tackling health inequities and disparities that continue to disproportionately impact marginalized communities is both a focus of his professional endeavor as well as a personal passion. As he strives to earn his college degree, Webb is also working with the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities program to leverage resources, knowledge and education to help combat HIV, a persistent health issue that remains prevalent within communities of color, especially Black LGBTQ+ communities.
“As a future physician-scientist, I have a profound interest in intersecting my understanding of medical humanities, public health and social justice,” said Webb. “Understanding these disciplines allows me to address social injustices that impact healthcare inaccessibility for communities of color. Through the initiative, I am being equipped with the necessary tools to fervently advocate and combat health stigmas that plague marginalized communities, especially the Black LGBTQ+ community,” said Webb.
Webb is one of 11 HBCU students chosen to participate in HRC’s PrEP Peer Education Initiative, a program designed to help combat transmission of HIV among Black student bodies at HBCUs while also combating HIV and AIDS-related stigma. The program utilizes educational efforts on the use of Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, an HIV preventative drug commonly known as PrEP. When used accordingly and routinely, PrEP can drastically lower someone’s chances of acquiring HIV. It is through a strategic approach to knowledge sharing on PrEP that the initiative hopes to reach the most vulnerable communities.
Webb describes the initiative as a “platform to be a champion for health equity.”
Despite medical and scientific advances to prevent and treat HIV, the virus continues to be a public health threat, especially among young LGBTQ+ people, particularly LGBTQ+ young people of color who are disproportionately affected by HIV.
Currently, there are over 1.1 million people in the U.S. living with HIV.
“Young adults between the ages of 18-24 are the fastest growing demographic of new HIV infections,” said Leslie Hall, director of HRC Foundation’s HBCU program. “Additionally, 1 in every 5 new HIV diagnoses come from people between the ages of 13-24. Young people living with HIV are also the least likely of any group to be aware of their HIV status and have a suppressed viral load. The rate of transmission is especially high in the South, which is also the home to the majority of HBCUs. On-campus health professionals and students are still unaware of the benefits of PrEP. All of this presents an alarming situation and reality for not only Black LGBTQ+ students at HBCUs, but for their straight and cisgender allies as well. This is how the necessity of our PrEP Educator Program came to our attention.”
Each peer educator received trainings on how to also combat HIV and AIDS-related stigma, a “much needed component in the fight against the virus,” said Hall.
“Unfortunately, HIV stigma in the Black community is negatively associated, and still in 2022 during a progressive era, it is still seen as a death sentence,” said Webb. “Black Americans in underserved areas are not informed of medication that can prevent HIV and ways to combat stigma. These communities tend to be the hardest hit. The HRC HBCU PrEP Initiative challenges these notions by making Black college students aware of treatment and advocates change to create an inclusive, well-informed society.”
Information and knowledge not only helps to combat HIV transmissions while promoting prevention, it also challenges the widespread of misinformation and inaccuracies, which can have a deeply negative impact on those living with the virus.
The cohort of 11 peer educators convened for four days in early August at the HRC headquarters in Washington, D.C., to further their training and expand their knowledge of the use of PrEP as well as ways of combating HIV-related stigma. During the convening, Hall said that the cohort learned how to talk to their peers and colleagues about lowering their chances of HIV transmission.
Kenric B. Ware, associate professor at the South University School of Pharmacy in Columbia, South Carolina, spoke during the convening in D.C. Ware serves in the American Academy of HIV Medicine’s Southeastern Regional Steering Committee and Public Policy Committee as well as the South Carolina HIV Planning Council.
After having met with the other peer educators and connected with leaders in the HIV education and prevention spaces, Webb said he feels optimistic about his role in helping others learn more about the virus, its impact on Black communities and encouraging others to take proactive measures.
“When I become a physician-researcher, the knowledge gained from this initiative will enable me to practice health equity and be an even better advocate for my patients,” said Webb. “Moreover, I hope to influence healthcare policy so that all communities, especially Black LGBTQ+ individuals, have access to quality healthcare. Lastly, this opportunity will provide me with transferable skills and support to make institutional change thus providing a voice for unheard students.”