'Get Tested' Is Advice as AIDS Infection Rate Rises in Duval; Advancements in Treatment Dampen Fear of the Disease

By Howard, Kate | The Florida Times Union, March 20, 2010 | Go to article overview

'Get Tested' Is Advice as AIDS Infection Rate Rises in Duval; Advancements in Treatment Dampen Fear of the Disease


Howard, Kate, The Florida Times Union


Byline: KATE HOWARD

Shannon Nelson's conscience won't let him be anything but honest when it comes to his HIV status. So when he meets someone he thinks about dating, he's up-front.

Wouldn't you rather be with someone who tells you he's HIV-positive, he asks, than someone who doesn't?

"The answer is always 'someone who doesn't say,'" said Nelson. "It's twisted."

Nelson believes he was infected nearly eight years ago by a long-term partner who didn't tell him he had HIV. By the time he got sick and went to the testing facility at River Region Human Services, Nelson, then 30, already had full-blown AIDS.

Now Nelson is feeling healthy, his disease virtually undetectable. He works at the facility where he was tested, handing out the same bad news he received many years ago.

Jacksonville health officials and social service agencies say it's people like Nelson - younger gay men - they're focused on reaching now more than ever as infection rates continue to rise.

The Duval County Health Department plans an in-depth study soon to see just how much faster the number of new HIV cases is rising among gay men. Their message is the same as it was when the disease was new: Get tested, and if you're infected, change your behavior.

In the most recent survey of Duval County, more than 8,600 people have HIV or AIDS. More than half of the 2,360 people living with HIV are between 20 and 40 years old, and nearly 40 percent of all the men said they'd been exposed through sex with other men.

The reasons given for the rise are complex.

More people than ever are being tested and counted, even if they caught the disease years ago. And experts believe the healthy lives many infected people lead with advanced treatment has dampened fears about contracting AIDS.

"Before 1995, people got infected and died," said Mitch Marcus, an early-intervention consultant with the Duval County Health Department HIV/AIDS program. "The disease was so horrific it put the fear in people. To a significant degree, we've lost that fear factor."

After several years where much of the grant money went to combating HIV infection among black women, the focus has swung back around locally to programs aimed at gay men. Officially, the group is classified as men who have sex with men, because many people in the target audience are in relationships with women or don't identify themselves as gay.

SPREADING THE MESSAGE

Reaching these young people means spreading the message from the inside out, says Cindy Watson. She is executive director of the Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network, or JASMYN, which supports young gay, bisexual and transgender youth.

Many of the young people Watson knows have been kicked out of their homes, ostracized and rejected for their sexual orientations. She thinks that rejection adds to the likelihood they'll engage in risky behavior that could lead to AIDS.

"When you get that message, you might feel like you don't have anything to lose," Watson said. "I'm bad already. I'm going to be as bad as I can be."

JASMYN is now trying to reach young black gay men before they become part of a scary statistic: At least one in every 13 carries the disease, according to the Florida Department of Health. They're seeking out popular students who already have the ears of their friends to promote safe sex.

Though the impact of HIV and AIDS on the gay population was high from the beginnings of the disease in 1981, researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say infections dropped as ways to prevent it became well-known.

"In recent years, we've seen those trends reverse," said Rich Wolitski, deputy director for behavioral and social science in CDC's division of HIV/AIDS prevention. "Now we've been seeing a steady increase in new HIV infection among men who have sex with men in recent years. …

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