Each year on February 7, there is a nationwide effort to increase HIV education, testing, community involvement, and treatment among African Americans.
For communities like Escambia County, the annual observance of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day takes on added significance.
“It’s a really important awareness day,” said Debby Carty, with the Florida Department of Health in Escambia County. She also serves as the HIV/AIDS program manager for Area One, which extends to Walton County.
“There are several big HIV ones, but this one is very important mainly because of the disparity within the Black community, that HIV has had on them.”
To her point, she says African Americans make up about 23 percent of the overall population in Escambia County, yet they account for 46 percent of the HIV epidemic in the county.
Reinforcing the prevalence locally, 68 percent or 169 of the 248 new HIV cases across the region from 2014 to 2016 were in Escambia. Over that same three-year period, 60 percent of the new cases diagnosed within Escambia involved African Americans.
The epidemic remains, but Carty says there have been improvements. She references the findings from the latest SILENCE IS DEATH report, which was first release more than a decade ago to highlight the crisis of HIV/AIDS in Florida’s Black communities.
“In 2005, HIV was the number one cause of death among African American people age 25-44 (in Florida),” Carty said. “And in 2016, HIV had dropped down to number five as the cause of death among that age group. So, that’s really good news and shows some progress.”
Additionally, the report shows a 25 percent decrease in the number of HIV cases reported in Escambia County since 2005. And, the number of new HIV cases for African American men who have sex with men declined by 4.8 percent from the number of new cases reported from 2012 to 2016 in Escambia County.
Again, Carty says this is encouraging news.
“But I also want to caution people that the slogan for National Black HIV AIDS awareness Day is ‘Stay the Course, the Fight is Not Over;’ that’s the theme. So, even though we’re seeing this good news and we’ve made some progress, we really do still have some work to do.”
One of the ways state health officials can reduce the risk of HIV infection is with PrEP, Pre Exposure Prophylaxis. It was approved by the FDA back in 2012 and is now available locally.
“It’s one pill, once a day,” said Carty. “For women after three weeks of taking it, they can be protected from getting HIV, if they’re exposed to it. For men, it’s one week after taking PrEP every day, they’ll be prevented from getting HIV if they’re exposed to it. So, it’s a really great tool that I’m happy we can add to our tool box.”
DOH-Escambia now has a PrEP navigator to help process inquiries and determine if individuals are good candidates for it. Ultimately, a physician will decide on whether to prescribe the drug.
Another initiative, Test and Treat, focuses on getting people who are HIV positive linked into care as quickly as possible. The state goal is to start treatment within 30 days of diagnosis.
“When they’re on medication and in care, their viral load - the amount of virus in their blood - is undetectable,” said Carty. “And, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)tells us now “undetectable” equals “un-transmittable.” So, they’re a lot less likely to transmit the virus if they’re in care and taking their medications like they should.”
To get to this point, individuals have to overcome the lingering stigma and fear associated with HIV and take that crucial first step of getting tested.
DOH Escambia will be offering free HIV testing and education at the site of today’s (Tues) National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day event at Mt. Canaan Baptist Church in Pensacola, 500 E. Moreno St.
The mobile unit will be on hand from 1:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m. Also, testing will continue through the end of the program, which begins at 5:30 p.m.
This year’s guest speaker is Samuel L. Carter, executive director of Carters Corner Community Services in Tallahassee.