phil_wilson_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

MIAMI — A recent conference on the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), the deadly disease that it causes, sparked a spirited follow-up discussion in Miami.

The consensus was that research has made such big strides in dealing with the virus and the disease that people have become complacent and are not as vigilant as they should be.

The result is that HIV/AIDS is still prevalent in South Florida, particularly among blacks.

The International AIDS Conference took place in Washington, D.C., at the end of July, with participants urging more treatment of those infected with HIV/AIDS.

The Black Treatment Advocates Network hosted sessions in Miami-Dade and Broward counties to discuss the outcome of the meeting, including a press conference where advocates painted a continuing grim picture of the HIV/AIDS situation.

The Network and the Black AIDS Institute hosted the press conference at the African Heritage Cultural Center, 6161 N.W. 22nd Ave., in Liberty City on Aug. 7.

Around 25,711 people are living with HIV infection in Miami-Dade and the biggest risk for the disease in South Florida lies in the Liberty City neighborhood, according to Vanessa Mills, executive director of the community-based organization Empower U.

“People tend to go out with people of their own kind … have relationships with people within their own community. If you choose to have a partner in Liberty City, the relative risk of selecting someone with HIV is great,” said Mills. “That’s sad.”

“Because of treatment, people don’t appear to be sick, so we select partners who appear healthy,” Mills said.

Some 30 years after the virus was first diagnosed, the assumption that HIV/AIDS affects gays and junkies remains prevalent, Mills said.

“It’s shocking to think that many have forgotten that this is still a very lethal disease,” said Evelyn Ullah, director of HIV prevention program with the Broward County Health Department.

Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Gongora said the infection rate is rising in his city because “young people have become too comfortable with HIV.”

“The treatment has become easier, in many cases down to one pill a day for people who are infected,” Gongora said. “A lot of people have stopped taking care of themselves, stopped advocating for safe sex, and stopped using good smart, practices.”

The black community has to become a part of the fight to stop the virus, said Charles Martin, CEO of the South Beach AIDS Project. “We have to look at HIV/AIDS and know that it is one of the most pressing issues in the black community today.”

Phil Wilson, president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, said for the first time in the three decades since HIV was discovered, science has reached a point in understanding how to end the epidemic.

“We have better diagnostic tools,” Wilson said. “It has never been easier or more important to know your HIV status. We have better surveillance tools; we know where the epidemic is right down to the zip code. We have better treatment tools for those of us who are living with HIV.”

Wilson, who said he has lived with the virus for 32 years, described the HIV/AIDS treatments currently available as “better than they have ever been before.”

“We now have the ability to interrupt acquisition of the virus,” he said. By using the same kinds of therapies employed in the treatment of HIV, “we have found that it provides protection against acquiring HIV, if exposed,” he said.

Cynthia Roby may be reached at