FORT LAUDERDALE — One in every four people infected with HIV doesn’t know it. Are you that one?
Volunteers with the “Respect Yourself, Check Yourself, Protect Yourself” (RCP) Movement’s StreetScare event spread through the intersection of Sunrise Boulevard and Martin Luther King Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale to do just that: use an in-your-face approach to raise awareness.
The harsh reality of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) — the early stages of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) — is that far too many people contract and pass along the incurable disease without any knowledge that they have it.
Despite efforts to reduce the prevalence of the epidemic, cases continue to rise at alarming rates. While the disease is a nationwide concern, Florida is among the states under the spotlight.
As of 2010, Florida was ranked third in the nation, behind New York and California, in the number of reported cases of HIV/AIDS. Broward County accounted for 49.9 percent of all cases, placing second to Miami-Dade County.
Experts say HIV is preventable and ignorance is its greatest ally. Due to a lack of information, people often fall victim to stigma and silence.
“People think I’m gay. When you’re a man — especially a black man — with HIV or AIDS, that’s what people assume,” said Robert Bell, 43.
Bell, first diagnosed with the disease at 18, said in an interview that he understands the reason for silence.
“When I first found out [about having the disease], I didn’t want to tell anyone. I couldn’t stand the isolation, the looks and the whispers,” he said. “But then when I met someone I wanted to be intimate with, I was obligated to tell them. That was the hard part.”
Not everyone living with HIV or AIDS is as honest as Bell.
Traci, who asked her name be changed to conceal her identity, is one of the 30 percent of women living with AIDS in Broward County. She found out she was infected when she was 17 and didn’t tell anyone until after her first son was born three years later.
“I was dealt this death card by a man I loved. He knew. He didn’t tell me. I was angry and bitter. So I didn’t tell anyone either,”she said.
At age 21, Traci gave birth to a HIV-positive baby boy.
Broward County is ranked second in the nation in the rate of reported pediatric HIV cases. Traci’s son, Gregory, was one of the county’s 1,542 babies born with HIV last year.
“That’s when it hit me. I gave my baby the same death sentence. I guess I grew a conscience after that,” she said.
Though remorseful of many of her past decisions, Traci continues to live within the shadows of her diagnosis. “I’m not open about my condition and I don’t talk about it,” she said. “My family knows — and that’s all who I need to know. I’m still ashamed.”
Bell, though, is a self-proclaimed HIV/AIDS advocate who spreads the word about the disease any way he knows how. “I believe the cure is education. If you know better, you do better,” he said. “And we are losing our babies to this monster. It’s our job to school them.”
Bell speaks to the under-30 population diagnosed with HIV. Last year, in Florida, 15 per cent of newly reported cases were in patients under the age of 25.
Ethnicity is another factor. In 2010, African Americans comprised 49 percent of all people living with AIDS in Broward County.
This situation has existed for several years. In 2006, a report titled “Silence is Death” detailed the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Florida’s African-America communities.
Donovan Thomas was stunned by the information enough to want to find out more about the disease. The more he researched, the more he was moved to act.
“I had to really research to learn about things affecting my community on a daily basis,” Thomas said. “Imagine how many people who aren’t looking for the information.”
In an effort to make the information more accessible, Thomas founded the Respect Yourself, Check Yourself, Protect Yourself (RCP) Movement. “Media doesn’t over-saturate the message. We have to get the message out there,” he said.
“That’s why we do the StreetScare. It’s the shock value. You don’t expect to see people wearing ‘I Have HIV’ t-shirts, handing out info flyers and waving statistics posters by your window while you sit at a red light,” he said. “If we can reach a few people, start conversations, and make people think, then I feel it’s a success.”
By creative means and through several outlets, RCP pushed its vision to educate and inform communities about HIV/AIDS by creating campaigns and doing outreach work that causes people to reflect on their behavior.
RCP efforts are continuing through several South Florida colleges: Florida Atlantic University, Broward College, Florida Memorial University and Florida International University
For more information, visit www.rcpmovement.org.
Tranika Fagan may be reached at tranikafagan @gmail.com.