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AIDS Day has special urgency

World AIDS Day, organized to bring international attention to the fight against HIV and AIDS, will be observed in downtown St. Petersburg on Friday.

The local event, which will take place in Williams Park, has grown larger each year, said Lisa Cohen, HIV/AIDS program coordinator for the Pinellas County Health Department. "What we're trying to do is raise awareness, trying to get the message out,'' she said.

There is particular concern about getting that message to African-Americans, a group with a disproportionately high rate of HIV/AIDS, she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the HIV/AIDS epidemic is a health crisis for African-Americans. The problem is also laid out in a Florida Department of Health report, Silence is Death: The Crisis of HIV/AIDS in Florida's Black Communities. The report says "more blacks in Florida are living with HIV or are already dead from AIDS than any other racial or ethnic group.'' In 2005, the report adds, "one in 58 non-Hispanic black males and one in 83 non-Hispanic black females were living with a diagnosed case of HIV/AIDS.''

Cohen said the Health Department has been trying to reach the African-American community through churches and groups. "We have one church in Largo where they do testing in the church itself,'' she said, referring to Green Chapel AME Church.

"We're very focused on trying to reduce the HIV stigma. People are just afraid. They're afraid to come forward.''

For Alexis Spates, statistics about the epidemic's devastating effect on African-Americans are quite real. Her family has lost two members to AIDS, said Alexis, 16. The Boca Ciega High School junior wants to do her part to prevent the spread of the disease. The St. Petersburg teen will sing Janet Jackson's Together Again and Missing You by Diana Ross during Friday's event.

"I think that teens aren't really aware of the risks of having sex, and I don't think they take the rate of HIV and AIDS as seriously as they need to. They don't think of the consequences,'' she said. "I think that I can reach out to some of them, being a teen.''

Cohen emphasized the importance of testing for early detection of HIV, adding that early knowledge can prolong a person's life. Additionally, she said, there have been major improvements in treatment. Cohen said test sites exist in addition to the Health Department, with some offering results in as few as 40 minutes. Rapid test sites include Suncoast Resort in St. Petersburg and Metropolitan Charities in St. Petersburg and Tampa.

The World AIDS Day Wellness Fair at Williams Park is being sponsored by the Pinellas County Health Department and the city of St. Petersburg. The Health Department and its HIV/AIDS Community Planning Partnership will present a variety of activities, including free health screenings, flu shots, entertainment and free food.

Fast Facts

For help

Resources, including case management, medical care, prescription drugs, support groups and testing, are available for those infected with HIV/AIDS. Call the Pinellas County Health Department's HIV/AIDS program, 824-6900, ext. 11475, or go to Pinellashealth.com.

By the numbers

25 years since the first reported AIDS cases.

25-million - estimated who have died of the disease worldwide; more than 500,000 Americans.

36,763 diagnosed cases of HIV in Florida since reporting began in July 1997; of that number, 1,524 have died.

104,202 diagnosed AIDS cases in Florida since reporting began in 1981; 56,592 of those people have died.

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