Free conference on aging and HIV/AIDS set for Sept. 17; Jack Mackenroth of ‘Project Runway’ to speak – Desert Sun

The seventh annual Positively Aging Project Conference will bring together researchers, advocates and people living and aging with HIV/AIDS on Sept. 17. 

The conference will be a hybrid event — available via Zoom and in person at the Joslyn Senior Center Arthur Newman Auditorium (the first time it’s being held in person since the COVID-19 pandemic) — from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It is free and open to the public, and lunch will be provided.

Interested participants can register via https://tinyurl.com/2sxsauen or through the HIV+Aging Research Project-Palm Springs website at https://www.harp-ps.org/upcoming-events. Those attending in person must wear a face mask. 

The Positively Aging Project conference is aimed at providing information and inspiration for those living long-term with HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus. A number of local health care providers and organizations, such as DAP Health, Eisenhower Health, HIV+Aging Research Project-Palm Springs, the Alzheimer’s Association and the LGBTQ Community Center of the Desert, will be participating.

“People are just really appreciative to have a space where they can get together with people who are experiencing the same thing,” said Jeff Taylor, executive director of the HIV+ Aging Research Project-Palm Springs. “People growing older with HIV kind of feel somewhat stigmatized in a number of ways. HIV can still be stigmatizing even 40 years into it, unfortunately, and as people get older, they start to feel invisible, especially in the gay community.”

HIV is a virus that attacks cells that help the body fight infection. If left untreated, it can lead to AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.There were approximately 38.4 million people across the globe with HIV in 2020.

Topics that will be covered during the conference include:

  • Courageously moving forward during times of increasing uncertainty

  • Roundtable with Let’s Kick ASS (AIDS Survivor Syndrome) Palm Springs

  • HIV research update panel with BIOS Clinical, Eisenhower Health, Palmtree Clinical Research and HIV+ Aging Research Project-Palm Springs

  • Monkeypox update with Dr. Phyllis Ritchie, CEO and founder of PS Test

For many individuals who lived through the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, they may have AIDS Survivor Syndrome, which Taylor compared to post-traumatic stress disorder. They “lost lovers, partners, friends, entire social networks” during this time, and many in the gay community, especially those who were HIV-positive, faced discrimination. The roundtable will offer a chance to connect with others and Let’s Kick ASS Palm Springs, which organizes social gatherings such as potlucks, coffee socials and movie nights.

This year’s keynote speaker is Jack Mackenroth, a swimmer, model and former “Project Runway” contestant. He was the first openly HIV-positive contestant in the fashion design show’s history.

Mackenroth will discuss his time on the show, including when a health issue forced him to disclose his HIV status and withdraw from the competition, and how that led to him becoming an HIV and LGBTQ+ advocate.

Another featured speaker at the conference is Porchia Dees, a “vertical,” or someone who was born with HIV. She has become an advocate for people who have lived their entire lives with HIV and are often left out of long-term survivor discussions or have little to no research on their unique clinical and psychosocial health challenges.

In the absence of intervention, the rate of vertical transmission of HIV can range from 15% to 45%. But transmission levels can be reduced to 2% with the help of antiretroviral drugs, which help lower viral load.

During one of the early years of the symposium, Taylor said a group of young people who were born with HIV wanted to know if they were “allowed” to come to the event. Having not thought of people who fall under that group, he encouraged them to share their stories during the conference.

“It was kind of a showstopper,” Taylor said. “Older gay men with HIV, which is the majority in our community, heard about kids who were born with HIV, but we don’t know many.”

That presentation allowed for people to hear about “the differences but also a lot of the parallels” between their HIV journeys, Taylor said, as well as “the uncertainty of knowing what’s happening to our bodies as we get older with HIV.” 

Over the past seven years, the conference has reached people not only all across the nation but even around the world — a participant from Thailand joined the conference last year. That shows “how important this is to people living with HIV to have these kind of events,” Taylor said.

Ema Sasic covers entertainment and health in the Coachella Valley. Reach her at ema.sasic@desertsun.com or on Twitter @ema_sasic.

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