Monday, January 14, 2013

CDC's Black Gay HIV Prevention Chief Resigned in Nov. 

Honest communication is an integral component to averting new HIV infections, but when it comes to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention being upfront about its prevention program and the man who used to lead it, Dr. Kevin Fenton, pictured, the health agency receives poor marks.

My first post on Fenton was in January 2006 when he first began his CDC tenure, and I commented on how his gayness and his partner's were omitted from the agency's announcement about his hiring. FYI, he was born in Jamaica and attended medical school there. Links to my other Fenton posts are here. An internal memo leaked to me said:

Family: A native of the U.K., Fenton now resides in Atlanta, with his partner of seven years. In December, their family was expanded to include a beautiful Basset hound named Avery.

We learned the name of the couple's dog but not the name of Fenton's partner, and Fenton being gay was left on the cutting room floor. That same spirit of obfuscation was at play in December when Fenton quietly resigned from his federal position.

Only one news outlet, gay or straight, reported on his resignation that was tendered in November and the outlet was Project Q Atlanta for the LGBT community, in a story by Matt Hennie. I've cribbed the resignation letter from Project Q Atlanta. Bravo to them for breaking this important development. Hennie reported:

Fenton leaves the CDC on Dec. 21 and will become the Health Improvement & Population Health director for Public Health England, a new national agency that opens its doors in April. CDC Director Thomas Frieden told agency staffers that Rima Khabbaz, director of the CDC’s Office of Infectious Diseases, will fill Fenton’s position while a national search is conducted. “Kevin will be responsible for improving health and wellbeing services and tackling health inequalities throughout England,” Frieden says in his email. “This prestigious appointment also allows Kevin to return home to be with his long-time partner, family and friends . . . ”

Seven-years after accepting the job, the CDC still can't simply name Fenton's long-time partner. What's up with that?

In early December, Dyana Bagby writing for the GA Voice news site, spoke with Fenton and reported on a signature accomplishment of his, a direct advertising effort targeting at-risk men of color:

“As a gay man and gay leader, I’m always been committed to ensuring we can do the best we can for the communities that are hardest hit,” he said.

Over the last seven years the CDC has ramped up HIV testing, creating culturally competent resources and utilizing social marketing campaigns such as “Testing Makes Us Stronger” to reach populations most at risk. “The Testing Makes Us Stronger” campaign is the first time the CDC really showed strong images of black gay men and also showed that caring about one’s health is valuable.

Kudos to Bagby and GA Voice for shedding light on the resignation and larger picture.

My evaluation of Fenton is that he brought a welcomed non-alarmist approach to HIV prevention, put resources into reaching black and Latino men, spent a good deal of time listening to service agencies and critics of the CDC, the community agencies and the fear-driven messaging of too many social marketing campaigns.

Wishing him all the best on his return to the United Kingdom and in his new healthcare position.

Unfortunately, the CDC has not issued an alert about Fenton stepping down and being replaced by Dr. Rima Khabbaz on an acting-basis at their HIV prevention page, nor is there an announcement about this leadership change, and how the CDC is conducting the search to appoint someone to replace Fenton, on the agency's site.

The CDC needs to do a much better job of engaging everyone working on HIV prevention, starting with immediate transparent discussions about where the agency will take prevention programs in the post-Fenton era.

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