FORT LAUDERDALE — Peter White visits high schools throughout South Florida, speaking to students about HIV/AIDS prevention.
At a recent discussion, he said the students “have no idea what it’s really about,” and that they ignore the seriousness of the disease by holding onto the fact that a positive diagnosis is “no longer a death sentence.”
White also said that communities are “failing our children by not getting them the message.”
Dr. Anna Puga, who specializes in pediatric infectious disease, said one youth is infected with HIV every 30 minutes, adding that “we need open education in the schools.”
White and Puga joined other South Florida residents and HIV/AIDS prevention advocates in a national HIV/AIDS community discussion on Nov. 20 at the Dillard High School Auditorium in Fort Lauderdale.
The discussion, hosted by the White House Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP), offered South Floridians an opportunity to provide input as the White House works to fulfill President Barack Obama’s pledge to develop a National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS).
Data collected by ONAP representatives at each discussion will be placed into a report and made available on the White House Web site in a few months, according to Greg Millett, ONAP’s senior policy advisor.
Millett is also a researcher for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who conducted groundbreaking research showing that although black men who have sex with other men are more likely to become infected with HIV than their white counterparts, they are no more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors.
Participants at the Nov. 20 discussion were allowed 90 seconds to comment on solutions to one or all of the following issues: reducing HIV incidents, increasing access to care, optimizing health outcomes, and reducing HIV-related health disparities.
The 14 scheduled community discussions began in Atlanta, and will conclude mid-December in Puerto Rico, according to ONAP director Jeffrey Crowley. The Fort Lauderdale discussion was number 12 of 14.
“[President] Obama has pledged and developed this national strategy to reduce the number of HIV tests that are positive,” said the Rev. Rosalind Osgood, president and CEO of Mount Olive Development Corporation, which has programs that help people who are HIV-positive.
“We are not here to take shots at organizations, but to get input from the community,” said Osgood, who was also the discussion’s moderator.
More than 56,000 new HIV infections happen in the U.S. each year, with Broward County ranking third in the number of reported cases. New York City and Miami-Dade County rank numbers one and two, respectively.
Fort Lauderdale ZIP code 33311, which includes part of the city of Fort Lauderdale, Wilton Manors, Oakland Park, Lauderhill and Lauderdale Lakes, has the largest concentration of South Florida’s newly reported cases.
The majority of residents in this ZIP code are black.
South Florida, according to U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings’ Web site, has the highest concentration of uninsured people in the state.
Thirty percent of reported cases in Broward and Palm Beach counties are for people who are foreign-born, according to Crowley.
Failure to discuss the disease within the churches, Osgood said, “means they really dropped the ball. As a whole, the church is too silent about it.”
Osgood also said that strategies about “how to discuss it” are necessary. “The disease is largely affecting women, and through a trickle-down effect, hurts families and communities.”
South Florida resident Debbie Carson said that many people are afraid to get tested.
“Anyone entering a hospital or triage center should be tested, and health insurance companies should offer this testing without punishing those who test positive,” Carson said.
Mike O’kea said that he would like to see grant dollars made available to increase the number of HIV rapid-test sites.
“When you look at the mass mobilization to make people aware of H1N1, know that HIV/AIDS has been out there for more than 25 years,” said Donovan Thomas of the RCP Movement (Respect Yourself, Check Yourself, Protect Yourself).
“Yet when it comes to HIV/AIDS, you never even see a public announcement providing any type of education. We need to engage and educate; get the message out.”
Osgood said that she is “glad that the White House is beginning this conversation” because the “needs of each community is different and should be heard.”
She continued: “I see this as an opportunity for people to come together, address the issues and take ownership.”
THE MORE YOU KNOW
Adult HIV/AIDS cases by race and sex, cumulative data through 10/31/09:
BROWARD COUNTY, MALE
BLACK – 4170
WHITE – 5159
HISPANIC – 1722
OTHER – 229
BROWARD COUNTY, FEMALE
BLACK – 3768
WHITE – 536
HISPANIC – 343
OTHER – 99
BLACK – 6414
WHITE – 2862
HISPANIC – 7912
OTHER – 213
BLACK – 5192
WHITE – 378
HISPANIC – 1603
OTHER – 96
PALM BEACH COUNTY, MALE
BLACK – 2584
WHITE – 1467
HISPANIC – 637
OTHER – 66
PALM BEACH COUNTY, FEMALE
BLACK – 2255
WHITE – 421
HISPANIC – 272
OTHER – 35
Source: Florida Department of Health