National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is held annually on Feb. 7. The theme for 2017 is “I am my Brother’s and Sister’s Keeper.”
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans are the racial/ethnic group most affected by HIV in the United States. That’s also the case in Florida and Escambia County.
On a statewide level, the African American population accounts for nearly 50 percent of the HIV infections in Florida, yet Blacks make up only 15 percent of the overall population in the state.
“That right there tells you that they are disproportionately affected and it’s at an alarming rate,” said Debby Carty with the Florida Department of Health in Escambia County, 1295 W. Fairfield Dr., Pensacola. “It’s still an epidemic.”
Carty serves as HIV/AIDS program manager for Area One, which also includes Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties.
At the end 2016, there were a total of 2,041 persons living with HIV or AIDS in the four-county area, 65 percent of them in Escambia county alone.
And, while Escambia has an African American population of about 23 percent, Blacks account for over half the county’s total cases.
“We’re in the top 20 consistently,” Carty said in reference to the fact that Escambia rates thirteenth out of the 67 counties in Florida for AIDS cases and is sixteenth for HIV in the state. Only larger metropolitan areas rank higher.
When it comes to why there’s such a large racial disparity in the number and percentage of HIV/AIDS cases, Carty points to the fact that many individuals still don’t want to know their status.
“People are afraid to know,” she said. Further, there’s a stigma associated with the disease, so people are fearful that if they test positive, someone will find out. However, Carty said that’s absolutely not true. “We don’t share that information; we keep it under strict lock and key.”
Because of state confidentiality rules, the ease and availability of HIV testing and improved treatment Carty believes there’s no reason NOT to know your status. She encourages individuals to find out for themselves and also for their loved ones.
As Area One HIV/AIDS program manager, Carty has the job of implementing the statewide program for combating HIV and AIDS. That includes free testing at the health department and via mobile units that go regularly into different areas. For those infected, health officials ensure treatment is provided. The PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) and PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) treatment is available to help keep HIV negative people from becoming infected. Also, a big part of their effort is outreach and messaging.
“We take the opportunity of these awareness days, like National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness day, to get the word out and, you know, talk to our community leaders in the black community and do as much outreach as possible within the black community.”
The Mother Wit Institute, Inc. is one of the health department’s partners and is one of the sponsors of the local observance of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
The program will be held at 6:00 p.m. at Houser A.M.E. Zion Church, 710 E. Jordan St., Pensacola.
Information and testing will be available. Reverend Sanford Hayes from New Life Missionary Baptist Church of Crestview will be the guest speaker.
In addition to businesses and sororities, churches have been invaluable to awareness efforts in the African American community, especially over the past three years.
“They take the information from the pulpit and talk about it,” said Mother Wit Board President Georgia Blackmon. “A lot of them take information that we get from the health department and have it in their churches that they can pass out.”
Mother Wit has been working to address HIV and AIDS since it was founded in 1996, with a focus on informing young people. With the Department of Health and other partners, the organization has held a number of events at the Fricker Community Center, which primarily serves African American residents.
The CDC initiative “Party for the Purpose” is held there once a quarter. Also, teens are invited to the center on a monthly basis for leadership workshops and movie nights.
To effectively fight HIV and AIDS among blacks, or any other population, Blackmon believes knowledge is the key.
“You have to really get people that are committed to getting information out and I think that we are working on that, so I think we’re going where we need to be going,” Blackmon said.
But, if Blackmon had her way, there would be curriculum in the schools. Also, we’d all be talking about HIV and AIDS, not just on National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, National Testing Day in June (Jun 27) and World AIDS Day in December (Dec 1), but every day.