world_aids_day_ribbon_web.jpgThe number of AIDS cases among black females in Florida is 17 times higher than among the state’s white women.  

In response to the crisis, the state's Department of Health held a conference June 20-22 in Orlando, its first, dedicated to educating community leaders and public heath officials about HIV prevention among black women. More than 600 people attended the three-day event last month at Orlando's Florida Hotel and Conference Center.

Vanessa Mills, executive director of Empower “U”, Inc., a Miami-based nonprofit, said, “It was wonderful to see African-American women from all over the state mobilizing together to fight this epidemic, and this is just the beginning.  We are trying to get more women involved in the fight. You don't need a degree; you just need the passion and commitment.”

Called “S.O.S.: Sistas Organizing to Survive,” the conference addressed the disproportionate impact of HIV/AIDS upon black women.  A recent study by the health department offered sobering facts:  one in 55 black women in Broward County is living with HIV/AIDS, compared to one in 892 white women, and one in 544 Hispanic women.

“That's a big disparity,” the state health department's senior epidemiologist, Spencer Lieb, said. “The good news is that, even though the total impact is greater in the black community, there is a downward decline in newly diagnosed HIV cases [among black females.]”

HIV/AIDS has been the leading cause of death among black females in the 25 to 44 age range for the past 15 years.

“We wanted to do something to mobilize black women through education and empowerment,” said Ronald Henderson, the health department's Statewide Minority AIDS Coordinator, who helped organize the conference. “Our goal is to empower women to take control of their sexual health. We want women to talk about HIV/AIDS where they live, work, play and worship.”

Discussion topics at the conference included HIV and Corrections, Effective HIV Ministries, and The State of Black Youth: HIV/AIDS Crisis in Florida.

Janet Cleveland, deputy director of HIV/AIDS prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was a guest speaker. 

Through Empower “U,” Mills and her staff are working to raise awareness among Miami's African-American women. On June 27, the nonprofit celebrated National HIV Testing Day by canvassing the Liberty City area with signs that read “Free Yourself” and “Positive?” The center had set up four rapid testing sites to provide results within 20 minutes.  By noon, seven women had been tested.  

“We want to take away the anxiety about getting tested and, if a woman tests positive, we can get her connected to care,” Mills said.
“We're sending the message that you are not a bad person if you become infected with HIV.”

Henderson said that state health officials hope to provide HIV testing for 100,000 women across the state every year through 2010.  He stressed the importance of education. 

“Getting tested has proven to be the single most effective preventive measure,” he said.

Churches are becoming active in HIV awareness programs. The African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church recently partnered with the Florida Department of Health to open at least one church-based testing site in each of the state's counties by year end.  So far, 40 churches have signed up.

“The church has done an outstanding job of responding to HIV in the community,” Henderson added.  “It's important to educate the congregation because women are the majority of the congregation.” 

For more information about Empower “U,” Inc. visit or call 786-318-2337.