BROOKSVILLE — Decades after HIV exploded onto the American consciousness, the illness remains an off-limit topic in many cultural circles.
"There's much stigma attached to the virus,'' said Lashaundra Ellison, with the Hernando County Health Department. "No one wants to talk about it in Hernando County. It's like the taboo conversation. A lot of people want to advocate (about) the virus, but it's not just accepted here."
Ellison said research indicates that African-Americans are disproportionately affected by HIV as compared with other populations. The causes are multiple, foremost among them poverty levels and health care availability, she said.
To turn that tide, the department last year developed an educational and outreach program that recently earned a prestigious honor, a Model Practice Award, from the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
It was one of 41 such awards given out across the country, first ever for Hernando, Ellison said. The program is being featured on the NACCHO network so that other health agencies can replicate it.
"This award puts the Hernando County Health Department into special company — a select group of health departments that exemplify a forward thinking, proactive attitude toward protecting and promoting the health of communities across the nation,'' the organization noted in a statement.
The Health Department enhanced a video produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and originated educational materials to spread the word to African-American teens about participating in Health Department programs.
The program, dubbed Positively Negative, was launched last year, helped by a grant of $6,800 from the state-funded Area Health Education Center.
"The project was presented at churches and wherever we saw kids gathered," said Ellison.
Objectives of the program met or exceeded health officials' expectations in the following areas:
• The goal was to get 75 African-American teens to participate in a video opportunity teaching abstinence and safer sex; 86 teens took part.
• The goal was a 20 percent increase in the number of targeted teens to take part in clinics at the health department; the increase was 45 percent.
• The goal was to secure letters of commitment from 10 stakeholder groups to help spread word of the program and provide host space for programs.
The groups signing on included: Allen Temple, Holy Band Deliverance Temple, Shallow Problem Solvers, A New Generation, Black Educators Caucus, All-Pro Dads of Brooksville, Jerome Brown Community Center, East Side House of God, Frederick Kelly Elks Lodge and South Brooksville Neighborhood Community Association.
Beth Gray can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.