More than 6,000 Jacksonville residents are living with HIV or AIDS in Jacksonville and new diagnoses are happening in people at younger and younger ages.
This week, organizations like the Northeast Florida Aids Network set up events to spread awareness — and protection.
HIV and AIDS case manager Regina Tobey was handing out bags of condoms in Riverside’s 5 Points Wednesday afternoon .
Standing outside of the bar Raindogs, she flagged down drivers by yelling “AIDS awareness week. Free condoms,” while waving a yellow sign with “FREE CONDOMS” printed in bold letters.
She said even if someone doesn’t need them for themselves, they work great as stocking stuffers.
“You just try your best,” she said. “We’re trying to control the epidemic, and it’s still out there and it’s still prevalent.”
Dr. Max Wilson heads the HIV-AIDS program for the Duval Department of Health and all of Northeast Florida
Florida, with more than 127,000 cases of HIV or AIDS, ranks second in the nation for new cases, behind New York.
Wilson said Duval has the third highest rate of new HIV cases among metro areas in the state, with 857 new cases over the last two years. That’s topped by Miami-Dade and Broward Counties at 3,692 and 2,006 new cases, respectively.
Duval County has what he calls an “aggressive” strategy, testing about 30,000 people a year, “which is about 11 percent of all the testing in the state,” Wilson said.
Wilson added Duval’s high numbers of new HIV cases is due in part to the effectiveness of testing.
The department is also asking doctors to start incorporating HIV testing into routine exams and encouraging patients to request tests from their doctors.
HIV attacks the immune system which can lead to AIDS, the final stage of HIV infection.
HIV-AIDS can be transmitted different ways including mother to child, sharing needles,or during unprotected sex.
Wilson said the good news is declines in mother-to-child transmission and declines in new infections among African-American women, which had been high in the past.
“Challenge-wise, we unfortunately continue to see relatively stable if not slightly increasing numbers of infections among men who have sex with men,” Wilson said.
The average age of people diagnosed with HIV or AIDS is getting younger over the last few years, from late 30s and early 40s, to late 20s.
“(That) could indicate that they’re becoming infected earlier or that younger people are becoming more aware of the need to test,” Wilson said.
Duval County Public Schools partnered with the health department, the University of North Florida and the LGBT youth nonprofit Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network, to train health teachers and improve policies.
According to the most recent anonymous student survey in 2015, 73 percent of Duval high schoolers said they learned about preventing HIV in school, which is below the national average of 85 percent. However, 19 percent answered they’ve been tested for HIV, compared to the average of 13 percent nationally.
Students take a health course in middle school and one in high school and there is a section about sexually transmitted diseases in the curriculum, said Duval Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.
“We are required by statute to teach abstinence, but at the same time be very clear that there are other strategies that prevent STDs, (including) HIV,”Vitti said.
He said for instance teachers are allowed to talk about condom use, but they can’t give them to students.
However, several Duval high schools like Sandlewood, Ribault and Terry Parker, have campus health centers where students can get condoms and tested for STDs and pregnancy.
But stigma can be a barrier to getting tested, said Wilson and Cindy Watson, the executive director of the Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network.
“They’re afraid that if people know they have HIV or even know that they’re being tested that they’ll be discriminated against (or) that they’ll be rejected,” Watson said.
Watson’s LGBT nonprofit JASMYN serves kids as young as age 13. The organization offers medical services, including HIV testing and medical case management. She said if a young person does test positive her organization helps them navigate insurance and medication.
“We help them every step of the way,” she said. “We help schedule the doctors appointments. We go with them to appointments.”
Over course of a year, JASMYN has raised $700,000 toward fighting HIV-AIDS, including more case managers and outreach.
Last year, 55 young people worked with JASMYN case managers. Of those treated, almost half of them have suppressed the virus to the point it doesn’t show up in blood tests and is much harder to transmit.
Reporter Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at@lindskilbride.