Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

HIV AIDS; Statistics Renew Call for More Awareness New Reports Show a Major Jump in the Number of Cases Statewide. Officials Say We're Catching Up with Old Cases, a Result of New Tracking Methods. Some Say It's a Warning Sign for Communities to Refocus Attention on Prevention

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

HIV AIDS; Statistics Renew Call for More Awareness New Reports Show a Major Jump in the Number of Cases Statewide. Officials Say We're Catching Up with Old Cases, a Result of New Tracking Methods. Some Say It's a Warning Sign for Communities to Refocus Attention on Prevention

Article excerpt

Byline: JEREMY COX

Aleathea Morrison doesn't try to hide her illness. The Southside woman tells anyone who will listen about her struggle with HIV/AIDS and how to avoid getting infected.

For years, she was a living, breathing statistic. But there was just one problem with that: She hadn't become a statistic yet.

State epidemiologists say that a 40 percent leap in new HIV reports in Florida this year is largely driven by people like Morrison, who have been infected for years but never counted -- until now.

The new disease-tracking method does not indicate that a new wave of infections is sweeping across the Sunshine State, they say.

The state had 5,099 new infections through July, up from last year's January-through-July total of 3,605, according to provisional Florida Department of Health numbers obtained last week by The Times-Union.

Another new surveillance method has resulted in a similar boost in new AIDS reports this year. The state counted 3,114 new cases, a 38 percent jump.

Many of the "new" HIV and AIDS cases are actually more than a decade old, but state epidemiologists only have been able to track them since November 2006. The numbers provide the clearest picture yet of the infection's spread in Florida, but that won't last for long.

Next month, the state plans to unveil a new measure developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based on estimates of when people became infected with HIV. The same measure prompted the CDC to announce earlier this month that the number of new HIV infections nationally is about 56,300 a year, 40 percent higher than originally thought.

Unlike the existing system, which only tracks when a person was diagnosed with HIV, the new CDC method uses a blood test and sophisticated statistics to estimate when that person became infected.

The number of new infections each year in Florida has held steady for several years at 4,000, a figure that one state official called a "rough stab."

"Now we think that number is going to be higher just as the CDC's number is higher," said Spencer Lieb, a senior epidemiologist with the Bureau of HIV/AIDS for the Florida Department of Health.

With 227 new HIV cases through July, Duval County has reported 10 percent more infections this year than last year. The county has the sixth most HIV cases in the state.

Like the rest of Florida, much of the rise in Duval can be attributed to the new surveillance techniques, said Bob Harmon, director of the Duval County Health Department.

Still, he said, "Bottom line is these are unacceptable numbers. And we must work harder to control this epidemic."

BELOW THE RADAR

Aleathea Morrison's plight with HIV/AIDS offers a glimpse behind the recent jump in reported cases of the infections in Duval County and Florida.

To be sure, hers is not a new case. Morrison was diagnosed in 1988. Her T cell count was below 200, an indication that her HIV had progressed to AIDS. A prostitute and crack addict, she had been living with the infection for a long time, probably years, without knowing it.

"I really didn't care," Morrison, 43, said of her dire diagnosis. "I was at the bottom."

Her life-changing moment came a few years later, shortly after the birth of her daughter. Morrison, who had gone into labor while lying in a street during a crack binge, resolved to clean up her life for her daughter's sake.

Morrison found God. (Her voice mail begins, "Praise the Lord! You have reached a saved, sanctified and filled-with-the-Holy Ghost woman of God.") And she devoted her life to helping others with the affliction. She is a member of HIV/AIDS support groups and serves as an outreach specialist for River Region Human Services, a Jacksonville drug-rehabilitation center.

Florida didn't begin tracking HIV infections until July 1997 and, even then, only new reports were counted, Lieb said. …

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