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”It’s a sobering thought, how affected our community still is – whether it’s preventable in a lot of ways or not,” says Daniel Fredrick O’Neill about his work in HIV prevention and his plans to be a doctor working with HIV/AIDS issues.
”I always want to be in a clinical setting, practicing medicine,” he says, quickly adding, ”but public health fascinates me too. I can reach the masses that way. I think they’re almost inseparable when it comes to HIV, in particular.”
And when it comes to fighting HIV in the District, O’Neill is on the front lines with the ”FUK!T” campaign he helped to launch.
The in-your-face name for the campaign providing condoms and lube at locations throughout the District has been one of the key projects of the HIV Prevention Working Group, a program that O’Neill founded at The Center, the area’s LGBT community center, after discussions with Executive Director David Mariner.
Talking about his hope to avoid the politics and turf issues that he felt had caused problems in other HIV/AIDS work in the District, O’Neill says of the working group, ”I felt that we could be so much more efficient in how we addressed a number of the issues around HIV in D.C. and felt it was important, too, that we have this neutral space where we could move forward.”
But moving forward can be difficult, even with a concrete step like the condom distribution the working group has implemented with the FUK!T campaign – which has a ”TOOLK!T” counterpart for more demure placement.
Referring to some venues that have declined participating in the campaign, not allowing condoms and lube to be placed there, O’Neill says, ”We even find resistance – those kinds of puritanical undertones, that we’re not able to talk openly about the fact that we have sex – in D.C.
”Here, in the center of the epidemic, it’s the least thing you can do if people are coming to your business and you’re making money off of them potentially becoming drunk and inebriated and less vigilant about the decisions they’re going to make about their health and the health of the trick they have in hand, that we can at least provide and facilitate us protecting ourselves,” he says. ”No one’s shoving condoms in anyone’s hands; they’re just putting them out. And that’s how you bring about behavior change.”
Even if condoms and lube were everywhere, O’Neill knows, more would still be needed.
”HIV is so multifaceted. To move forward, we’re going to have to hit it in a bunch of different ways.”
And multifaceted is maybe the best way to describe O’Neill’s public life. In addition to his work with The Center, he is pursuing both medical and master of public health degrees at George Washington University.
And now, with the International AIDS Conference coming to D.C. in July 2012, O’Neill sees another opportunity.
”There’s a historical precedence, where at each of the past International AIDS conferences … they have a local community coalition of sorts, ” he says. ”They put together a platform statement or declaration of some kind, that ties into the theme of the conference … or not, but that reflected the views of what was going on locally in the host community.”
Working with Christine Campbell of Housing Works, and Tony Young, who is on the host committee for the conference, as well as others, they’ve started the community coalition for 2012.
”Anyone and everyone can contribute,” O’Neill says. ”We’ve had a lot of people join on from organizations all around the city.”
O’Neill is heading up the policy subcommittee and says, ”In the coming weeks and months this summer, we’re hoping to have a few town hall meetings after we … put together a platform of sorts to then get input from the community. That’s critical to this process.”
Discussing what 2012 could mean, O’Neill says, ”Realizing that we will be on the world stage, it’s an opportunity for us to shine and show what we’ve done, to shine a spotlight on us and the problems we’re facing, and an opportunity to catalyze us in moving forward. The converse of that being that we’re an embarrassment and we fall flat on our faces – which we don’t want to have happen.”
Asked what one change he would make to HIV/AIDS policy if he controlled D.C. government, he says, ”I think we’re at a point where it’s not unreasonable to revisit the notion of another citywide testing campaign.
”It’s something that’s doable to help people familiarize themselves with the process and importance of it. Finally we’ve got coordination of care,” he says. ”We know how to better link people into treatment and care after they’ve been tested. It would help get those providers who aren’t doing routine opt-out testing onboard to doing that.
”It would then galvanize the whole city as seeing this – not just as certain high-risk groups, but everyone – as something that they need to do. … With the counseling that goes along with [testing], that there’s an opportunity for that to inform people how we need to do this as a routine part of care on a regular basis. Not just for ourselves, but for each other.”
O’Neill, who notes that he was born in the same month that the Centers for Disease Control first reported on the illnesses that ”would come to be the HIV epidemic as we know it today,” is able to pull back from the trying specifics of testing and treatment.
”A beautiful thing about HIV – and there is one – is that it’s forced us to have those tough conversations that really make us vulnerable and show our humanity. Those issues around sexual orientation, gender identity. Those issues around gender imbalances, poverty, drug abuse and addiction. All those things that we don’t want to discuss, but that really make us human.
”I think it has brought us ahead light years of where we would have been otherwise in having those conversations,” he says. ”If we’re going to become a healthier D.C. – a healthier society in general – we need to have those conversations.”