“People still think it’s a death sentence, and it’s not”

The Mazzoni Center.

The Mazzoni Center in Philadelphia has always been a proponent of ally-ship and dedicated to providing quality comprehensive health and wellness services to individuals who need it in an LGBTQ-focused environment, and the people who work at the local organization themselves have truly made their jobs into passion projects. From medical services to counseling and everything in between, this staple city organization has been servicing those in need since the HIV and AIDs epidemic first hit.

“The evolution of Mazzoni Center itself, it started out as the Philadelphia Community Health Alternatives and has continued to grow and evolve since then,” says Dr. Mark Watkins.

Watkins has been practicing medicine for over two decades and has also been at the Mazzoni Center for four years. His focus has been with HIV patients over his course of practicing medicine, and he has seen exactly what changes have been made since the start of the disease. “What started out as a center for gay men for HIV testing and education back in the 70s and 80s then joined forces with the Philadelphia AIDS task force, so it has that focus for the gay community which has evolved into the LGBTQ community. The history of being involved with HIV care and HIV prevention since the early days of the epidemic.”

Watkins does everything with HIV work medically in the center spanning treatment, prevention, prescribing, prep and even primary care on top of it all. Through everything he’s seen though, his outlook on the subject is quite positive, especially with the latest medical advancements made.

“It’s 2020, as bad as this year is already, people still think it’s a death sentence, and it’s not,” explains Watkins. “I use my one patient as an example: he used to go around to the medical school in the 90s and early 2000s and show everybody the handful of pills he had to take every day to stay alive. He was taking 34 different pills every day. Some of them were eight of this pill and four this one, but his total count of 34— now we’ve got it down to one.”

That evolution and design has been a huge plus for an epidemic that was once deemed to have “no hope.” Seeing the treatments advance in time has been exciting for Watkins who has seen the progression in person with his patients himself.

“When we look at the evolution of HIV treatment, it’s not that it’s gotten simpler, but the majority of companies, if something isn’t better and safer than what’s already out there, those medications aren’t even being developed,” continues Watkins. “So our big focus is on safety as well as efficacy. In a couple months we’re going to have it down to a monthly injection and shortly after that, the injection should be approved for every two months.

“When you look at people’s response in the study who are looking at the injection —how liberating it is they don’t have to take a daily pill. When that goes to two months think of again how that’s going to change everything for HIV. Hopefully, people don’t have the stigma of going to the pharmacy and getting the pill bottle, they’re not going to have that stigma of having a pill bottle in their house and having to take a pill. You can do things much more discreetly and privately now, and it’s fully effective. But even the changes I’ve seen in 30 years, to go from no hope to one pill undetected, untransmittable, people undetected, don’t progress with HIV to Aids. People today should not be dying because of how effective our treatment is.”

The Mazzoni Center’s mission has always been to be there any way they can for the LGBTQ community, and the pandemic has not ceased that at all, it’s just altered it a bit.

“Even with all of the obstacles that 2020 has thrown at us, we’re still here. We’re still doing our best to be providing quality HIV care to our patients, and not just with HIV, also with general practice and taking care of our trans community, our more vulnerable populations. We still have our food bank, and behavioral health services and case management. For healthcare you can look at it for one stop shopping, so hopefully it makes it easier for the patient being so condensed.”

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