Sexual health made the news recently when the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) released a provisional data showing that STD incidence rates have reached record levels for the third year in a row. According to the report, Alameda County has some of the highest rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis, with rates trending upward each year since 2013. On a related note, Alameda County Public Health Department (ACPHD) reports that rates of new HIV infection – between 200 and 300 per year – have remained unchanged since 2006, indicating that better tools and creative approaches are needed to shift the course of the epidemic in our community. To better understand the work being done on the ground to address the STD and HIV crises in our community, we spoke with Koji Sakakibara, HIV Program Manager at Asian Health Services (AHS) and his colleague David Gonzalez, HIV Program Coordinator about how Koji and David help run HCH510, a program committed to STD and HIV prevention, with a particular focus on reducing the HIV infection rate in Oakland and the rest of Alameda County.
The HCH510 team provides HIV/STD services and strategic outreach in the community by offering HIV testing, STI/HIV facts, treatment, care, and resources. In addition to clinic services and web-based resources, targeted outreach is done by the prevention team who go out into the community to LGBTQ bars, LGBTQ centers, sex clubs, and other venues. During these outreach activities, the team provides information and promotes their services.
One such service provided through HCH510 is access to HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP (a medication called emtricitabine/tenofovir or Truvada), which can prevent HIV infection by stopping the virus from taking hold and spreading throughout the body. Taking one PrEP pill daily reduces a person’s risk of contracting HIV from sex by over 90%. Combining PrEP with condoms and other prevention tools can reduce the risk even further and also help prevent other STDs. David Gonzalez of Asian Health Services explains that, “[PrEP] is changing the landscape […] I think the really great thing to acknowledge is that we have this tool now to actually go on the offense in this world instead of always being on the defense.”
According to the HCH510 team, when conducting outreach, it is important to prioritize discretion and inclusivity. HCH stands for Honeycomb Hideout, which refers to a safe area where the community may “hide out.” The team has taken the time to really understand their population and do what it takes to get the information into the community as discreetly as possible and make themselves accessible to everyone. Since HIV disproportionately impacts men who have sex with men (MSM), especially African Americans and Latinxs, it is especially important to prioritize access to services for these populations. Koji explains, “even though we’re Asian Health Services, we try to help everyone. STD rates are rising, [so] we have to do something for our community.” Koji also shared that many potential male clients do not identify as gay or are not open about their sexuality in many parts of their lives, despite engaging in sex with other men. These individuals need a different approach than other programs targeting gay men. HCH510 designed their outreach materials to appeal to people who may otherwise hesitate to pick up a flyer. According to Koji, they “decided to make it more subtle, less explicit, and easy to access.” Their mobile-friendly website and responsive design makes it easy for anyone to navigate.
Koji credits his staff for always supporting an inclusive vision and the needs of the community; he says that HIV and sexual health programs at AHS were nonexistent ten years ago and that “it’s a really changed environment; we’ve noticed that many patients are coming in because they’ve heard of our reputation and have heard of our great services. Half of our new patients last year were referred by existing patients.” It is a program that has come full circle and it is amazing to see everyone be such an integral part of it.