October 30, 2008
Health authorities in Florida's Treasure Coast counties worry that widespread stigma and fear of AIDS may be keeping people from being tested for HIV -- and that the area's case counts may thus be artificially low.
Martin and Indian River counties have each reported just over 100 HIV cases since 1997. St. Lucie County's case count is three times that of Martin and Indian River counties combined. The latter two counties have no community-based organizations doing HIV prevention work and receive very little money for government HIV programs.
Martin County Health Department epidemiologist Dr. Karen Thomas said people tend to look away when encountering an HIV prevention booth at a health fair, and that new prevention strategies are often met with silence. Thomas is working to concentrate her department's efforts in the migrant community, where people may think they are not infected so long as they have no symptoms.
Statistics indicate that more than half the Treasure Coast HIV cases diagnosed since 1997 resulted from heterosexual sex. In Martin County, the proportion of HIV cases is almost even among whites, blacks, and Hispanics -- a break from national, state, and regional trends that show minorities are most affected by the virus.
In St. Lucie and Okeechobee counties, the nonprofit Project Response is providing free mobile HIV testing through a state grant. But funds are not available to expand the program into Martin and Indian River counties. Kay Baker, a case manager with Project Response, noted that the Martin County Health Department charges $35 for an HIV test, and "If people don't have the money, they're just not going to go."