WEST PALM BEACH, FL — In observance of National HIV/AIDS Testing Day, the Urban League of Palm Beach County will host an HIV awareness event to help educate the community about the disease at its Community Empowerment Center, Friday, June 26, 2107 Tamarind Ave., West Palm Beach, 3 – 6 p.m.

Health experts will be available to answer questions and help dispel myths. Free, rapid HIV tests will be conducted at the center during the event.

The official observance of the 20th annual National HIV Testing Day is Saturday, June 27. The importance of HIV testing and education will be highlighted on this day across the nation to help prevent the spread of the disease, which if left untreated, could turn into AIDS.

Tomas Evangelista is the senior director of community development for the Urban League of Palm Beach County. Evangelista said that community outreach is important to help dispel myths about HIV and AIDS. “We had a forum at Grace Episcopal Church (recently) to dispel myths and provide knowledge and erase shame,” he said. “And to allow the community to ask specific questions so that we can arm them with information, resources and facts.”

Yvette Coursey chairs the HIV ministry for Grace Episcopal, 3600 Australian Ave., West Palm Beach. She said the church partnered with the Urban League to host the HIV event in recognition of Caribbean American HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, which was June 8th, and to bring awareness to the general public. “We think it is important that the community as a whole be aware of this illness and be educated about it,” she said. “Many people don’t understand the transmission (of the disease). They also have questions about symptoms. They don’t really understand the illness.”

Florida Department of Health prevention/training consultant, Linda Warren, said it is important to get tested because HIV can go undetected for a very long time. “When people think of HIV, they are looking for signs of AIDS (I.e. weight loss, change in physical appearance, change in hair structure),” she said. “AIDS is the progression of HIV. So it is important to know whether or not you are HIV-positive.”

Some of the people who should be tested include people with multiple sexual partners, and people who are engaged in high-risk behaviors such as having unprotected sex, with no barriers, Warren said.

Evangelista said thousands of people in West Palm Beach alone are infected with HIV. “One out of five individuals in West Palm Beach don’t know that they are HIV-positive,” he said. “And currently, there are about 8,000 individuals in West Palm Beach that are HIV-positive.”

Florida has been heavily impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, according to the website, www.floridahealth.gov. “The state continues to rank third in the nation in the cumulative number of AIDS cases (126,581 in 2012) and second in the nation in the cumulative number of HIV cases (49,058 in 2012),” according to information on the website. “The Florida Department of Health estimates that approximately 130,000 individuals are living with HIV disease in Florida. Of those persons living with HIV disease, 49% are black, 29% are white and 20% are Hispanic. Men represent 70% of the cases.”

Evangelista said the Urban League’s HIV event Friday, June 26 will provide public awareness,
distribution of male and female condoms, seminars to discuss the signs of HIV and appropriate choices, as well as rapid HIV testing. He said that black American males have the highest rate of HIV in West Palm Beach.

Testing should not be on the back burner but on the front burner, Evangelista said. “Testing is free. Testing is important,” he said. “As of July 1, (HIV) testing will become routine when you go to your doctor and have a blood test.”

Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill into law that takes effect July 1, which eliminates some of the paperwork required of Florida physicians to routinely test their patients for HIV, according to the website, www.businesswire.com. “While patients will be informed by their doctors that the test is being provided and will have the option to opt-out, written consent forms will still be required for HIV testing by community-based organizations and in other non-healthcare settings, including mobile testing vans,” the information in the website states.

Evangelista said the rapid HIV testing that will be done at the league’s upcoming event involves a cheek swab and takes about 20 minutes to get the results. He said that anyone who tests positive will be referred to other health professionals for a blood test to confirm the results. “You can live indefinitely with HIV,” Evangelista said. “It’s when HIV turns into AIDS that it can become a little bit more challenging.”

For information call the Urban League of Palm Beach County at (561) 833-1461 or visit, www.ulpbc.org.