World AIDS Day is commemorated each year on December 1st. Pensacola and surrounding communities held an observance at the Hancock Pavilion at Community Maritime Park Stadium.
The event provided an opportunity support those suffering from HIV and AIDS. Also, it was a time to remember those 1,224 Northwest Florida residents who have lost their lives to the disease. Many of those individuals were honored with AIDS memorial quilts that were hung from the rafters.
There were performances by the Belmont Youth Band and Ballet Pensacola.
The program also included keynote speeches by Butch McKay, Executive Director of Okaloosa AIDS Support and Information Services (OASIS) and Pastor Rodney Jones, Director of Transitions and Outreach for Pathways for Change.
McKay talked about the toll the disease has had on the community and discussed the global impact. While there is a great for funding in the U.S., he said he does not begrudge the aid that is sent to third world countries such as Tanzania. "As bad as the epidemic is here, you've never witnessed it until you see it first hand. I had seen the pictures on TV, but it's totally different. Those people need us. They have no one."
McKay and Jones agreed that there is also a great need for AIDS education. "People think that the epidemic has gone away. I encourage people to get involved. Get information out. Talk to your young people about the disease," Jones said.
The Florida Department of Health of Escambia County handles HIV/AIDS Surveillance for AREA 1, which includes Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties. Surveillance coordinator Scott Mickley says when he started tracking the disease for the four-county region there were just 32 reported AIDS cases. Now, the combined total has just surpassed the 3-thousand mark.
“We didn’t start reporting HIV until 1997. So, the cases were coming in pretty slow at that time. Since, especially with the advent of reporting of HIV and lab-based surveillance, our numbers have really picked up a lot,” said Mickley.
Historically, the smallest county Walton has had the fewest cases, currently reporting 60 people living with HIV and AIDS as of September 2013. In Santa Rosa, the number is 161 and in Okaloosa it’s 306. Escambia, the largest county, has 1,173 people living with HIV and AIDS. There’s still a racial disparity across the region, with blacks representing 42 percent of the adults living with AIDS; it’s 50% African-American in Escambia. And, after fairly stable numbers in the last few years, Mickley has noticed a disturbing trend this year.
“Through October, Escambia has had a 44% increase in HIV cases and an 81% increase in reported AIDS cases…compared to the same period last year, January to October. And, we’re still trying to figure out what’s behind the increase,” Mickley said.
One reason for the increase could be that people are being identified late, and thus are being diagnosed with both HIV and AIDS at the same time.
The Department of Health and community organizations are doing their part to encourage and provide easy access to HIV testing. HIV Evolution is a project of OASIS (Okaloosa AIDS Support and Informational Services) that serves the Pensacola area. It’s now providing rapid testing via OraQuick, which produces the results within 20 minutes.
“This is a rapid anti-body test. There’s no blood drawn. What it does is it detects anti-bodies in the tissues in your mouth. So, it’s an oral swab and it picks up any active antibodies that are fighting HIV,” says Kimberly Brill, HIV Evolution Outreach Coordinator.
The Department of Health recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 be tested at least once. Those who are at increased risk should be tested annually, and those at a very high risk should be tested once every six months.
For more information about AIDS in the community, visit the official website of the Northwest Florida AIDS Consortium at www.noflacweb.org.