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Experts say apathy and denial complicate the issues regarding AIDS

caines | 11/29/2012, 5 a.m.

This Saturday, health advocates and medical experts from Miami to Miramar and even in tranquil Mediterranean nations will sponsor a host of events aimed at raising awareness about the continued impact of HIV/AIDS. And while whites in the U.S. have been able to reduce their infection rates, the prognosis for the Black community is far less encouraging. Black youth, Black men who have sex with men [MSM] andBlack women are seeing their numbers rise in record proportion. Grassroots leaders here in Miami say that apathy and denial are playing a major role in why these numbers continue to escalate. According to the Centers for Disease Control, while Blacks account for 20 percent of Miami-Dade Countys population, they make up 52 percent of the reported AIDS cases and 44.7 percent of HIV-reported cases. But there are other disturbing statistics: Blacks account for two-thirds of new HIV/AIDS cases among women with the rate of infection for Black women nearly 15 times higher than that of whites; and in 1986, Blacks represented 25 percent of all AIDS cases in the U.S., but by 2004, that number had risen to 50 percent. Clearly the Black community is facing an ongoing crisis.

Health advocates say their job never ends

Every day I interact with at least one person that is still unaware of the modes of transmission for HIV/AIDS, said Lucy Virgo, 47, acting executive director, The Center for Positive Connections a support and resource center based in Liberty City. Our mission is to provide psychological, social and emotional support for those who are HIV-positive. As we prepare for World AIDS Day, we must be diligent in getting more people tested and reaching out to those who are both infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. There are many services out here to help people if they do test positive but a lot of folks still dont know them. Virgo adds that one of her concerns is the rise of infections among Black youth. Many youth [18- to 24-years-old] think theyre immune from this disease, she said. And its not just MSMs its heterosexuals too. Sometimes we put the focus on down low men [bi-sexual] but many Black men in general are reluctant to disclose their status. That impacts Black women. Melvin Fort, 48, project director for Empower U, Inc.s program targeting Black gay youth the Mpowerment Project hopes people will attend their workshops, fair and testing booths this Saturday [10 a.m. to 5 p.m.]. There will be life-saving information for our community that is vital as we can no longer act like AIDS doesnt impact the Black community, he said. We cant sweep this thing under the carpet because its not going away. We have to be supportive, we have to stand strong. But if we are going to get to zero as is the theme for World AIDS Day this year, that means we have to focus on reducing the numbers of HIV transmission, reducing the number of deaths and reduce the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. Many youth see the new meds as a cure all but its not just them. Heterosexual Black men and women are having unprotected sex and with multiple partners too. Gender, race or sexual orientation dont matter until we acknowledge that we are all at risk, Blacks will continue to be disproportionately affected. On Saturday, Sisters Organizing to Survive [SOS], along with Empower U, Jessie Trice Community Health Center [JTCHC] and others, will march from the NFL YET Center [7090 NW 22nd Avenue] to Empower U [8319 NW 22nd Avenue] to raise community awareness. SOS Miami-Dade County Chairperson Kalenthia Nunnally-Bain, 45, has been an AIDS activist for 17 years. She says the walk and other activities are aimed at empowering women and men. You have to know your status so you can live longer and live a quality life, she said. We are knocking out HIV one step at a time. Mt. Calvary MBCs AIDS ministry is also participating and thats major because churches are more apt to have in-house programs instead of going out into the streets. Barry University students will be joining us too and anyone can register to walk [www.sosaidswalk.eventbrite.com]. SOS was established in 2008 with the help of the Florida Department of Health. Nunnally-Bain adds that the local chapter was started because Black women were and still are leading the way in new HIV infection cases. There will be other initiatives including the Take the Train, Take the Test event, sponsored by the M-DC Health Department on Friday, Nov. 30 from 12 noon to 6 p.m. We will be at the Brownsville station for testing but what we really want to push is prevention, said Roselaine Monestime, patient care coordinator, JTCHC. The message we must convey is to get tested, stay aware and get involved. A lot of our own people still dont have any knowledge about HIV/AIDS. Dr. Fabian Thurston, VP, behavioral health services, JTCHC, says while research and medication have come light years forward, one must remain on guard. You cannot look at someone today and tell if they are HIV-positive, he said. That means you have to protect yourself. You have to have protected sex each and every time. As for the recent home test just released by OraSure Technologies, Thurston says it has both positive and negative benefits. There must be a team of people ready to assist those who take the test at home and discover that theyre positive, he said. Finding that out alone could put people at risk of harming themselves or others. Debra Fraser-Howze, OraSure VP said, We must normalize the act of HIV testing. You cannot make informed health decisions without knowing the truth. senior VP of Governmental and External Affairs for OraSure, says the home test was conceived with responsible health care experts and in conjunction with the CDC. The home test follows referral practices that have been in place by the CDC for the past 10 years, she said. Its a screening test similar to a home pregnancy test and its 99 percent accurate. The goal was to fill a void those who dont want to go to a doctor or clinic for testing or who think they arent at risk. We must normalize the act of HIV testing. There is a 24-hour hotline that directs people to supportive services in their own communities should their test indicate that theyre positive. You cannot make informed health decisions without knowing the truth. By D. Kevin McNeirkmcneir@miamitimesonline.com