Putting Community First – OIDP Staff Reflects on NAESM Conference
This summer, staff from the Office of Infectious Disease and HIV/AIDS Policy (OIDP) attended the National African American MSM Leadership Conference (NAESM) on Health Disparities and Social JusticeExit Disclaimer in Atlanta. NAESM is the nation’s largest annual convening dedicated to exploring prevention, care, treatment, policy, and research advances related to the health and wellness of Black gay, bisexual, and same-gender-loving men, and other men who have sex with men (MSM). The conference's theme was “All Hands on Deck: Deploying a Syndemic Response to HIV”. HIV.gov spoke with three OIDP staff members who attended NAESM to share their thoughts about the conference.
Staff Reflections on NAESM
CAPT John Oguntomilade, BDS, MPH, PhD, Ending the HIV Epidemic (EHE) in the U.S. initiative Coordination Lead for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health (OASH), spoke at the conference’s federal panel. He delivered a presentation entitled, “Ending the HIV Epidemic (EHE): Equity Approach with a Syndemic Response”. CAPT Oguntomilade discussed how important it was for the Black same-gender-loving male community to lead the conference. “It was very important that the community that bears the greatest burden of HIV, take a leadership role in addressing the needs of their community.” He shared that one of his main takeaways from NAESM was the federal panel’s discussion about optimizing the traditional healthcare system to expand HIV testing, linkage to prevention and treatment services, and facilitate retention in HIV care. “We need to go beyond the traditional healthcare system and explore innovative approaches to reach the people where they are in collaboration with non-traditional partners. We cannot continue to do business as usual if we are going to end the HIV epidemic.”
We also spoke with Dr. Marissa Robinson, DrPH, MPH, RPCV, EHE Coordinator, about NAESM and how what she learned there helps in her efforts with OIDP to end the HIV epidemic. Dr. Robinson shared that the conference highlighted the long-standing use of the syndemic approach to HIV work. “Syndemic work has been done at the community level for decades. The theme of wrap-around services […] and all the pieces outside of the individual that go into making them whole was a huge theme […] throughout the conference.” She discussed the importance of continuing to share space with those with lived experience and those who serve the HIV community at the community level. “As we look forward to the future of EHE, we can ensure—as representatives of the federal government—that we [will] continue to attend conferences like NAESM [and] support local and community HIV efforts that target those who are disproportionately impacted by HIV.”
OIDP’s Senior Public Health Advisor for Syndemics, Nathan Fecik, shared his thoughts about one of the major takeaway discussions from the conference—centering the community in HIV-related work. Mr. Fecik supports OASH/OIDP in the syndemics portfolio, which spans HIV, STIs, viral hepatitis, substance use, and mental health disorders. He noted that what is core to the syndemic approach to HIV as a public health policy-maker is engaging the community. “Starting with centering the community in all that you do is a must. It is critical to do the hard but important work of engaging the community that you’re intending to serve to understand their needs.” He continued, “The United States is a very large country. There are unique drivers of health and cultural differences in communities across the country we must understand and respect for the integrated syndemic approach to be most effective.” When discussing his most enjoyable moment from NAESM, he shared that he was honored to be there and felt welcomed, as a white male, as a guest in a space curated for Black gay, bisexual, and other MSM. “It’s easy to get lost in the work that you do as a federal worker, but how that trickles down, aligns with community-led efforts, and collectively impacts people’s lives is an energizing force—we do know the importance of listening to the community, and I like to remind myself of that.”