South Florida sounds an alarm for World AIDS Day

Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, FL
Copyright © 2011 Sun-Sentinel

South Florida has the highest number of new HIV/AIDS infections per capita in the nation, and blacks continue to be the hardest hit.

Whites account for about 30 percent of Florida residents living with HIV or AIDS, Hispanics about 20 percent, and blacks 49 percent, according to 2010 data released by the Florida Department of Health.

”Broward County is still No. 1 and that is not something to be proud of,” said Donovan Thomas, of Fort Lauderdale, founder of grass-roots prevention group RCP Movement. “We’re trying to find ways to break the silence.”

Thursday marks World AIDS Day, a global health day started in 1988 to unite the fight against HIV. Throughout South Florida, there will be vigils, workshops and forums, to educate the community about HIV/AIDS.

Young African-American gay and bisexual men are especially at risk of HIV infections, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.

Some of the factors contributing to the high rates of HIV infection in minority communities include: limited access to high-quality health care, housing and HIV prevention education, according to the CDC in Atlanta.

Agencies said they’re trying more creative ways to get the word out.

The Comprehensive AIDS Program of Palm Beach County Inc. has its volunteers hand out mini-pamphlets with stories that almost resemble cartoons, detailing how someone contracted HIV. The pamphlets are printed in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole.

Staffers visit barbershops, salons and shopping plazas to distribute condoms and inform men and women about safe-sex practices. They also provide HIV testing.

”We recruit volunteers from within a community to help customize our message,” said Rik Pavlescak, chief program officer at CAP.

Still there are misconceptions that persist, he said. Some people still think they can tell by looking at someone that they have the virus and that it is rampant only in the gay community.

Many, Pavlescak said, would be surprised to know that in Palm Beach County one in four people with HIV/AIDS are over the age of 50.

There are about 7,866 people living with HIV/AIDS in Palm Beach County, but another 20 percent may be infected and not know it, said Timothy O’Connor, spokesman for the Palm Beach County Health Department.

There were 250 new cases identified in 2010 in Palm Beach County, a 17 percent decrease from 2009, but advocates say they won’t celebrate until the number of new cases being detected is down to zero.

In Broward County, there are about 16,704 people living with HIV/AIDS. From January to October, 907 new cases were reported, up from 691 during the same period in 2010.

Paul Moore, Broward County Health Department HIV/AIDS program director, said the increase could signal that more people are being tested.

”Testing people is key,” said Moore. “If we can get everyone in the county to get tested then we can treat them. They stay healthy longer, and [HIV is] less likely to spread.”

Damaries Cruz, of Deerfield Beach, was diagnosed with HIV 20 years ago.

She said she contracted the disease from an ex-fiance. At the time, she thought it was a death sentence.

”I didn’t think I was going to make it this far,” she said. “Now I’m 41 and I’m finally making plans for my future.”

Cruz visits prisons to talk to inmates about HIV prevention and has presented her message to young people at local forums, hoping that by identifying with her story, more will get tested.

Activists say getting the word out is crucial.

Thomas said RCP Movement members go to concerts and festivals with their prevention message. They plan to target city buses next.

Tony Plakas, executive director at Compass, a gay and lesbian community center in Lake Worth, said some groups are using online social networks to open discussion about the virus.

”People can talk about risky behaviors and challenges,” Plakas said. “It’s a way of compensating when you don’t have money for a major campaign.”