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Florida seeing highest number of new HIV cases in the nation

Published Jul. 3, 2015

At the height of the epidemic, the nurses wouldn't touch him. His mother had to give him a sponge bath in his hospital bed.

Michael Green, 43, of Tampa remembers the worst of those years: his AIDS diagnosis as a teenager, the terror and denial. Two decades later, he worries that a lack of education about HIV is contributing to a resurgence in diagnoses across Tampa Bay.

"They put HIV and AIDS on the back burner, like nothing's going on," Green said. "If these kids had education, I think the numbers would start dropping."

Florida now has the highest number of new HIV diagnoses in the nation, with Hillsborough County demonstrating the largest increase — 63 percent from 2012 to 2014. Pinellas County diagnoses increased 32 percent, according to recent Florida Department of Health numbers.

Officials trying to understand the surge point to complacency among young people.

"They were not around in the late '80s and the '90s when the HIV epidemic was at its peak, when people were dying, when the medications were not working," said Priya Rajkumar, vice president of Metro Wellness and Community Centers. "We are heading towards an epidemic again."

Community-based organizations have recorded upticks in diagnoses and clients across the Tampa Bay region. At Francis House in Tampa, which provides HIV support services, director of client services Vicky Oliver said too many people think they won't get infected.

"Back in the early '90s, people were afraid, so they were more knowledgeable," she said. "Now they don't think it's a problem."

In 2012, Hillsborough County had 273 new HIV diagnoses. By 2014, that number was 445, said Lisa Nugent, planning director at Suncoast Health Council.

"I tend to like to look at data over the long term. The longer I look at this, it is concerning," she said. "We need to get to the root of where it's coming from."

Population growth and more widespread testing may be contributing to the increase, she said.

The human immunodeficiency virus weakens the body's immune system, limiting its ability to protect itself from disease.

HIV can lead to AIDS, a potentially life-threatening condition characterized by infection and a very low white blood cell count. HIV is spread mainly through sexual contact, primarily between men who have sex with men.

The annual number of new infections has fallen dramatically since the mid-1980s, when people with HIV and AIDS rarely lived longer than a few years. While there is no cure, improved treatments have slowed the disease's progression, allowing for longer lives. The steady rise in HIV diagnoses in Florida has continued into 2015, data show.

This week, the Centers for Disease Control granted Metro Wellness and Community Centers $350,000 over five years for HIV prevention and treatment, part of a $216 million push to address the nation's hardest-hit areas.

Metro's new primary care clinic for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals also offers HIV and AIDS care.

Twenty-somethings have shown very high rates of infection in this area, Rajkumar said.

"We think there's a disconnect with what the disease was and what it is today," she said. Without living through the death and hardship, without the media coverage and activism, young people don't necessarily grasp how serious the condition remains, she said.

Rajkumar said 10 people have gotten new HIV diagnoses at Metro in June, a striking jump from the monthly average of two to four.

"This month, all of a sudden, it was off the charts," she said.

The spike is not limited to Hillsborough. The AIDS Service Association of Pinellas, Inc. has also noted an increase in diagnoses, especially among young men who have sex with men.

"It's certainly a cause for concern," said executive director William Harper. "It makes us realize that perhaps people are not hearing the message."

He said fluffy messaging tends not to create the needed urgency, and that young people may be tuning out the efforts to reach them. A misperception endures that HIV is now a one-pill-per-day condition, he said, while its effects are much more complex.

In 1996, when Harper was a case manager, not a month passed without the death of at least one client.

"You constantly heard about people losing their partners, their friends," he said. "And you don't see or hear that information at this time."

• • •

After Green was diagnosed in 1987, he isolated himself. After months of denial, he got sick. Doctors said he had a year to live.

He got on medication — 20-plus pills per day. But he let his life spiral, abusing alcohol and drugs. He attempted suicide, ready for the end.

Six years ago, about the time he had a massive heart attack, he walked into Francis House and turned his life around. Now he's a volunteer cook there.

The disease still affects him. He'll be taking medication for the rest of his life — $4,000 per month, made affordable with Medicaid and Medicare.

"I don't wish this on nobody," he said. "I'm not glad that people are being diagnosed, but it's good that the numbers are really coming in because it shows that people are out there getting tested."

Green talks to college students about what he's endured. But he worries they don't take prevention seriously.

"They think it's all laughs and jokes," he said. "This generation, they think it's okay because we don't talk about it."

News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321.

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