South Florida has a lot to be proud of, but leading the nation in new HIV/AIDS infections isn’t one of them.
The state is third in the nation for people living with AIDS, with Miami-Dade and Broward counties leading the way. Thankfully, the battleground against the disease is an old one in the community with organizations working to defeat HIV/AIDS for decades now. Growing every year, each one has garnered grants and opened new facilities, but they all have the same thing to say about why the infection rate continues: More people need to get tested.
Comprehensive AIDS Program
Founded in 1985, CAP started off as a group of people who were infected or had loved ones who were. Now, a staff of more than 100 works in three service centers in the county. Most importantly, it offers free rapid HIV testing to those 14 and older.
There have been successes in CAP in the last year, including the implementation of the Peer Advocate Leadership (PAL) program, a “buddy system” of support for those newly diagnosed. Also, a transitional housing program was also put into place so clients can avoid homelessness.
CAP has also been successful monetarily, scoring the High Impact Prevention grant from the Florida Department of Health. This will help with reaching out to high risk groups, said Dr. Rik Pavlescak, chief program officer and chief operating officer.
“Some of the interventions include HIV testing and linkage to care, antiretroviral therapy, access to condoms, prevention programs for people living with HIV and their partners, substance abuse treatment and screening and treatment for other STIs,” he said.
Also, CAP was the recipient of more than $100,000 from the SMART Ride, an annual two-day cycling event. The funds will be used for the organization’s drop-in center, an education program for adults living with HIV, as well as their loved ones.
Even with these successes, CAP is battling with infection rates in South Florida’s youth: The Department of Health said that 17 percent of all new infections are in people 25 and younger.
“We are seeing an increase in younger clients testing positive and needing our case management services,” Pavlescak said. “This illustrates the importance of advocating prevention to young people, so that they have the information and resources to protect themselves from HIV when they make decisions about experimentation with drugs and sex.”
Pavlescak believes that a more coordinated response at all community levels is necessary to help eradicate the preventable disease. This means continuing to push people to get tested, and making sure that those who are positive continue taking medication and getting treatment to stop the spread.
“HIV infection is preventable. Each individual needs to do what they can to prevent further transmission of the virus,” Pavlescak said.
This Broward County agency got its start in 1989 as a 52-bed charity for those infected with HIV. Now, it’s spread across South Florida in 15 different locations and draws fundraising from various community events, including Dining Out for Life, Gay Days at Disney, Amazing Race South Florida, Broward Bares It!, and its annual gala.
Recently, there have been positive changes at Broward House: The President and CEO Stacy Hyde was welcomed into the brood, and the organization also launched its new MEGA (Men Educating and Gaining Awareness) program. The program includes a mobile HIV testing van to provide quick results to participants in the community and at special events, as well as spreading the word about the disease.
“We now can get people their results in one minute,” said Terry DeCarlo, director of development, marketing and public relations.
Like with the rest of South Florida, the push for getting people tested is Broward House’s offensive move to rid the community of HIV/AIDS.
“Safe sex is not a thing of the past,” DeCarlo said. “It must be practiced every time.”
Newer generations not exposed to the horror of the ‘80s AIDS crisis, coupled with new drugs and stories going around about being cured of the disease, people have grown complacent.
“The community needs to come to the realization that although we have had many breakthroughs in drugs and treatments, the disease is still here, still running rampant, and people are still dying,” DeCarlo said. “The community must remain vigilant in their own fight of the virus and this includes the use of condoms every time one has sex.”
In 1983, Care Resource started off as a community AIDS research center.
In its 30th year serving the community, about 15,000 clients utilize services and about 10,000 AIDS tests are conducted every year.
Not only is the organization celebrating an anniversary, but also in the last year, the Miami-Dade-based organization became a federally qualified health center — going from a $9 million agency to a $12 million — allowing staff to treat the LGBT community in a more holistic way. Now, clients can not only get help with combating their HIV/AIDS, but also help with dental, mental health, substance abuse counseling, food delivery services, pediatrics, and more.
With about 75 percent of clients being uninsured, underinsured, or relying on public assistance, the federal designation is helpful.
“It just makes it easier for us to give services and provide funding for people who come in here who can't pay or can pay very little for services,” said Joe DePiro, marketing and public relations manager. “We've been growing considerably.”
Also, Care Resource opened up a new practice in Miami Beach, giving the public three offices to access help — which is necessary. Miami-Dade County still ranks as the nation’s leader in new HIV/AIDS cases, with Broward following behind at second. The battle for Care Resource has been for the public to get themselves tested, as still too many don’t know their status. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 18 percent of those infected don’t know it, and 32 percent are diagnosed late into the illness. (http://kff.org/hivaids/fact-sheet/the-hivaids-epidemic-in-the-united-states/)
Also, there’s work to be done for keeping those with the disease in treatment and adhering to their medications to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.
“I would love to say we're winning the battle, but when you look at the numbers we're definitely not winning the battle. ” DePiro said. “It's the public though that has to come around and start to really listen and embrace it... We can't sit here and just sort of pretend it doesn't exist and pretend that everything is OK, because it's not OK.”