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Feminist Majority Foundation Chat Series of 2003

MICHELLE LOPEZ, National Association of People With AIDS
Wednesday, March 12, 3-4 pmEST

Part of the March Series: Global Women's Voices, HIV/AIDS Speakers

Michelle LopezNow 36 years old, Michelle Lopez tested positive for HIV in 1991. A lesbian,immigrant, and mother of two, Michelle enrolled in a training program for women to do advocacy and treatment work in 1997. She currently works as a Treatment Educator and Client Advocate at the Community Healthcare Network in the Bronx and serves on the board of the National Association of People With AIDS.

Her closest encounter with death came in 1994 when, suffering from pneumonia and a fever of 105 degrees, she credits the images of her children with restoring her strength. Raven, age 12, is also HIV-positive and has recently come to understand what she is living with, explains Michelle. Rondell is 16 and learning to grow up with an openly gay mother who speaks publicly about HIV and AIDS.

But for Michelle, the last chapter is to become an American citizen and to vote. "Coming from Trinidad, voting is something deep in my heart that I want to have before I leave this earth," she says. Her current mission is to bring the voices of immigrant women impacted by HIV/AIDS to the forefront. "We make up a large portion of this pie," she explains, "and our issues must be addressed and heard to level the playing field."

Roshani Kothari: Hello Everyone. My name is Roshani Kothari. I work as the U.S. Partnership & Promotion Manager for OneWorld.net, an online portal and global network of over 1500 organizations working in human rights and sustainable development (http://www.oneworld.net/us). I will be moderating today's chat. I would like to thank Michelle Lopez for joining us in the chat today.

Michelle Lopez: Hi This is Michelle Lopez. I am very happy to be part of this chat today. My commitment to this chat is that I can be part of a group of powerful, intelligent women who are about to create change.

Shaina: What do you think is the most important thing and first step Americans should take in trying to help other countries with AIDS?

Michelle Lopez: The first important thing that America can do to help women with AIDS in other countries is to give them the opportunity to develop strategies and skills to identify their self worth and level the playing field for decision making. Also people in America can create partnerships to provide resources, exchange ideas and learn and understand other cultures. We have some of the answers, but not all the answers. Everyone has their way of doing things.

Kelly: Can you tell us about the work of the National Association of People with AIDS?

Michelle Lopez: The National Association for People with AIDS is the national voice for all people living with AIDS, including immigrants, drug users, gay people and youth. It is not an exclusive organization, but an inclusive organization at the national level. We teach people living with AIDS to be self sufficient and develop leadership within their lives; to be peer role models and be a lobby voice on advocating for our needs.

Kevin: It seems that education is such an important tool in the fight against AIDS -- for both prevention and treatment. Seeing that resources to address spread of AIDS in Africa are still limited, should efforts be focused on education? Or, should the funds available be used for medication? Obviously, both are needed. Are you hopeful that the world will eventually wake up and give this problem the attention it deserves so that questions like this won't need to be asked? Thanks for all that you do.

Michelle Lopez: If we want to look at the cost effectiveness, we should look at methods and treatments that can be utilized and microbicides are right there and not being supported. We have 15,000 new infections occurring every day. Past prevention methods have failed us, so we should look at new prevention strategies, specifically microbicides. Women are four times as vulnerable to HIV and we do not use condoms. Microbicides are products that are under development and they would be applied topically to prevent the transimission of infection of HIV and other infections, and they can be produced in many forms, such as gels and creams. It would prevent HIV and other STDs by killing or immobilizing other pathogens. It blocks the infection by creating a barrier between the pathogen and target cells. More funding needs to go to the development of microbicides.

Jalana : US immigration restrictions make it very difficult for Trinidadian immigrants to become citizens, how has your access to health care been affected by your immigration status? And what would you recommend to other HIV positive immigrant women seeking care?

Michelle Lopez: For me, it was a difficult, trying journey, but through my self-determination I mobilized with other people living with AIDS that were citizens, and they helped me navigate the health care system and now I have access to ADAP (AIDS Drug Assistance Program), which provides all medication, including HIV medication, and addresses primary care needs. In New York we have the best ADAP formulary nationally. This came about through our work with the AIDS Institute. The largest consumer groups that utilize ADAP in New York are immigrants because we are not Medicaid eligible. In terms of advice to other immigrant women with HIV, do not let your immigrant status be a barrier to you mobilizing with groups that are at the podium making decisions. There are opportunities locally and internationally for women with HIV to be part of decision-making bodies.

Peter: Can you please describe the work you are currently doing for the Community Healthcare Network?

Michelle Lopez: My title is treatment educator, but my work is not just limited to treatment education. On some days, I am a social worker. On some days, I view myself as a clinician. On some days, I am peer mentor. On some days, I am sitting in a therapy session with other people with AIDs who feel displaced, and a large part of my work is helping them feel “placed” back into society. Afterwards comes the medication. And I say that because I am helping people, especially women, lift layers upon layers of trauma that they do not have the opportunity to address.

Tina: What do you think people who do not have AIDS should know about people living with AIDS?

Michelle Lopez: We are not criminals. No one that has this virus went out and asked to be infected. Because of situations and circumstances in our lives, we became infected. As an immigrant woman, I was very vulnerable in getting infected because I wanted a greencard. I took abuse from men. I accepted whatever men dished out to me both good and bad because of the dream that was being fed to me—if you stay with me and be submissive then you get the green card, and that led me to the path of destruction. Many women that I know that immigrate to this country are in that situation.

Kate: What is the most difficult aspect of living with HIV/AIDS? Why?

Michelle Lopez: The most difficult aspect is knowing that another woman is being infected on a daily basis. The reason is that I know that if we get the opportunity to make the decisions in our lives then we can maintain our well being and survive.

Birama: What are the positive and negative aspects of the medicine that you are currently taking?

Michelle Lopez: I am currently taking Kaletra and Trizivir. The positive aspect is that I have obtained a good viral suppression, and am maintaining this. The negative part is that I have to take this medication until there is a cure. It is frustrating for me to know that I have to take these pills in order to survive.

Anna Forbes: You mentioned microbicides earlier. It seems like such an obvious idea -- that women need something like a gel or suppository that they can insert for protection so they can get protection without having to have struggles and fights when their male partners are unwilling to use condoms. Why do you think the US government hasn't invested more in microbicides? I've heard that six time more in federal funding is going toward AIDS vaccine development than toward microbicides. Why is that? Thanks for all your hard work, Michelle. You really are a terrific role model of what it means to be LIVING with the virus!

Michelle Lopez: The U.S. government is looking at cost effectiveness to be a disservice in the HIV/AIDS community. It has been estimated that the cost of developing microbicides is around $775 million over 5 years, and the government has only given us $75 million annually for all areas of microbicides research, not just product development. The key to developing any pharmaceutical or healthcare product, is that it must be safe, effective, affordable and accessible. And this is why microbicides would be a good investment. If the community realizes the promise of microbicides, and the life saving properties it may provide, then additional funding must be made available for research and development. The National of Institute of Health and the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease spend majority of dollars in this area of research, so what is needed is that the directors of these organizations establish a branch with appropriate staff and funding that is dedicated to microbicides research and development.

Cody: I hope that this is not off the topic. When I seroconverted I was told that I was HIV+, but that I did not have AIDS. However, I see HIV/AIDS being used interchangeably. To me AIDS carries more of a stigma and finality than being HIV+ and healthy or even undetectable. At least for me personally this distinction has helped me have a better outlook on my life and hopes for a healthy future. I was just curious to see how you saw this.

Michelle Lopez: Both carry stigma and taboo in the community that I work in. It is safe for someone who is living with HIV to say that I am HIV positive, but when you talk about AIDS it takes you to the next conversation, “What am I doing about my HIV status?” If HIV is left untreated, you can progress to AIDS. Treating HIV is not just taking pills. It is taking care of the whole being, comprehensive care that is needed—the support from family members and loved ones. If you do not have those things, you surely will feel like you have been diagnosed with AIDS.

Crystal: The efforts of Americans to educate the women in other countries in hopes of controlling the infection rate of HIV/AIDS has come under a lot of fire lately. What can we do to ensure that this will continue? Are there organizations that we can write to, join, etc?

Michelle Lopez: Yes, there are organizations that you can write to, such as NAPWA (National Association for People with AIDS) http://www.napwa.org, and HRSA (Health Resources and Services Administration) http://www.hrsa.gov/. You should also continue to be determined, and keep focused on your work and your advocacy efforts. Do not let their threats be a barrier to your mission. It is not a crime to help save another life, and that’s the spirit of your work.

Tara: How do you think people can get involved to support the work that you are doing?

Michelle Lopez: I would like to get more involved with NAPWA and you can do this by joining us at AIDSWatch http://www.napwa.org/aidswatch.htm in Washington DC from May 18-20. AIDSWatch is a unique opportunity for people from all over the United States to come to Washington, DC, to unite with one strong voice in support of a solid federal commitment to AIDS programs.

Roshani Kothari: Thanks Michelle for taking the time to share your thoughts with us today. Good luck in your work. Thanks also to all those who joined in the chat. We would appreciate your feedback about the chat. Please go to http://www.advancedsurvey.com to take a 2 minute survey. On the website, enter 4130 under “Take a Survey.” Thank you very much for your participation and feedback.

Michelle Lopez: Thank you all the women and advocates that are willing to take this next step and carry forward the needs of women locally and internationally to help reflect our voices and needs. This is very helpful in impacting and creating change at different levels.