HIV on the rise in Duval; UNF offers services to help

Spinnaker

Tabitha Higgs lost a close friend to AIDS during high school. Her friend was only 17 years old when he died. He’d only had sex one time with one person. Higgs wants to make sure his death was not in vain.

Higgs is the business manager for the UNF chapter of Respect Yourself, Check Yourself, Protect Yourself (RCP), a group designed to promote HIV/AIDS education and awareness. She joined the group to help teach safe sex practices to prevent other people from contracting the virus.

“If I could just save one other person, then at least he wouldn’t have died in vain,” Higgs said. “I owed it to him to do something.”

Many clubs are expanding outreach during this month in observance of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day Feb. 7 and National Condom Week, which starts Feb. 14.

RCP occasionally partners with the LGBT Resource Center, the African American Student Union and Health Promotions to promote free testing as well as pass out condoms and pamphlets. RCP tries to make learning about HIV/AIDS fun and educational so that students won’t get turned off by the statistics, Higgs said.

Recently, the Duval County Health Department has shown an increase in cases of HIV/AIDS among the black population in Duval County. Mitch Marcus, the health department’s early intervention consultant, said that the virus has “disproportionately impacted” blacks.

8,612 residents currently live with HIV and/or AIDS in Duval County, which amounts to 5 percent of the total Florida population infected with the virus, according to Area 4 HIV/AIDS Surveillance Reports.

The surveillance reports from January state that in 2009, rates of HIV cases were seven times higher in adult black men and 20 times higher in adult black women than rates in white men and women. In Duval County, blacks make up 70 percent of the HIV cases and 63 percent of the AIDS cases.

The reports also show that heterosexuals make up 47 percent of the HIV-infected-without-AIDS population, while cases in involving gay men were at 37 percent.

Also, 31 percent of the HIV-infected population are 20 to 29 years old, the highest percentage of all the age ranges.

The health department is partnered with UNF’s Health Promotions to spread awareness concerning HIV/AIDS infection. The health promotions office, located in Building 3, room 1201, offers students and citizens the opportunity to get free, anonymous HIV testing. The department also provides pre-counseling and post-counseling for students and citizens.

“It’s a good thing to get tested,” Higgs said. “It doesn’t have to be something about doom and gloom.”

HIV testing on campus uses an oral swab. The test results take two weeks to be processed, and students and residents can come in to find out their results.

Kendall McCray, health educator and HIV counselor in UNF’s Health Promotions, attributed the increase in HIV/AIDS cases to the spread of awareness.

“If you’re getting more people tested, you’re going to have that spike [of HIV/AIDS cases] happen,” McCray said.

The statistics support this claim, as there’s a 21 percent increase in blacks getting tested, according to the November 2009 surveillance reports.

RCP, Health Promotions and the health department hope to educate students on the stereotypes regarding the virus.

“HIV and susceptibility is not about who you are,” Marcus said. “It’s about what you do. It’s about behavior.”

HIV is commonly stigmatized as a white, gay disease or a disease that affects the black population only. McCray hopes people realize that HIV is a threat regardless of race, gender or sexual preference, he said.

“It affects everyone,” he said. “There’s still an opportunity for you to contract this virus if you’re not careful. It’s better to have the knowledge than to not know about [the risk of HIV].”