HIV/AIDS grassroots organization Action Red opens a resource and education center downtown
By Kristy Totten
In a perfect world, people living with HIV/AIDS would never have to disclose their status. Everyone would know and follow safe sex practices and would have the information they needed to stay healthy.
In an even more perfect world, AIDS would disappear altogether. Transmissions would cease, new infections would cease, and the disease would fade away.
Needless to say, we don’t live in a perfect world. But those are goals for Lane Olson, and he says we’re getting closer.
Olson is the director of Action Red, an HIV/AIDS grassroots organization that opened a resource center on Fremont Street near Maryland Parkway on Aug. 3. The center’s motto is “Resources, education, diversity,” and its programming is twofold: One part is education and prevention, and the other serves those living with the disease. Meetings, support groups and patient advocacy are a few of Action Red’s offerings, and the health district plans to provide free monthly HIV and STD testing.
In Clark county, there are 3,500 people living with HIV, and 2,700 living with AIDS, according to the health district.
“Services were not up to par in Las Vegas,” Olson says, “so we spoke out.”
Olson and his colleagues attended several city and county meetings before deciding to start their own organization. In March 2011, the group was founded by 10 HIV-positive volunteers. First, they opened a gallery in Emergency Arts that features “positive” artwork, created by people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS. Now, a year and half later, the Action Red community center has come to fruition and was just granted a 501-C nonprofit designation.
Olson says the “grassroots” part of Action Red defines it. As organizations grow, they lose focus of the audience they need to reach, he says.
“We want to keep that connection, that spirit,” Olson said. “That’s what keeps up in touch with the community’s true needs.”
Rick Reich of the Southern Nevada Health District says the district serves different demographics at each of its three free testing locations (it also offers free testing at The Center and the Richard Steele Boxing Gym). At Action Red, Reich says, the clientele is mostly young gay men who are “not poor or well-off, but not homeless, drug-users or socially or economically oppressed.” Olson notes that young gay men are the most at-risk group overall, but the location will also serve minority women and the population in general.
Catching cases of HIV early is good for public health, and also good to the public pocketpook. The health district’s free tests are provided by federal money, while other for-cost services provided at the county’s sexual health clinic are supported by local taxpayers. “When you can intervene with someone that doesn’t know they’re positive and get them into care, there are significant cost savings later on,” Reich says.
Strict medication-adherance is one of Action Red’s most important messages. There’s still no cure for AIDS, but those who catch and treat the disease early can live relatively long, normal lives. But there’s a serious requirement: Patients must take their meds with near-perfect regularity to see results. Neglecting to do so can cause resistance to the patient’s medication, as well as others in that medication’s class.
Before this new way of thinking came along, doctors would wait for patients’ immune systems to start to break down before beginning treatment, which complicated their health overall. Now, positive patients can start medication immediately, and should. By staying healthy and being diligent about meds, patients can now live out an average life span — 20, 40, 60 years after their diagnosis.
As a person who is living with HIV/AIDS himself, the issue is close to home for Olson. His painful coming out and feelings of alienation help him identify with Action Red’s visitors.
Another one of Olson’s goals is to reduce the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.
“Some would reather not get tested, would rather just not know,” Olson says. “There’s still a lot of ignorance out there, and it’s a barrier to care.” Because people are afraid of being judged, they might not see a doctor, they might not take their medicine, they might not get tested.
Olson relates it to cancer or diabetes. When diagnosed with those diseases, patients are treated with compassion, empathy, kindness, he says. With HIV/AIDS, patients might get some of the same treatment, but it’s often accompanied by judgment, stigma and abandonment.
With Action Red now open, Olson is one step closer.