Recent state and federal data show Florida has the highest cases of new HIV infections nationwide, with the highest concentration in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, ranking number one and two respectively.
New HIV infections in Florida increased from 4,512 in 2012 to 6,240 in 2015. Miami-Dade and Broward Counties accounted for 38 percent of the increase in 2015. Minority communities were cited as particularly vulnerable among infection rates, specifically black women. Veteran Miami-based HIV case worker Canute Newland described the continued predominance of HIV infections, especially among the region’s black population, as “one of Florida’s best kept, but very deadly, secrets.”
“There has hardly been a year in the past decade that HIV infections have declined,” says Newland. “People are being treated, but because education and prevention methods are limited, the disease continues to spread.”
To address the issue, Newland believes “more funding and more staff” is needed to combat the spread of the disease.
Addressing the funding issue, Florida’s Surgeon General, Dr. John Armstrong, who is currently up for reconfirmation by Florida’s Health Policy Committee, said through a federal grant Florida plans to spend some $34 million on AIDS/HIVs.
“That is good news,” notes Newman, “but that’s federal money meant to treat patients who already have the disease. What is needed is for Florida to allocate more funding for the prevention of the disease.”
Democrat Florida Senator Oscar Braynon – a member of the Senate Health Policy Committee – and Republican Senator Don Gaetz, did agree that cuts in the state’s public health and social services budget has negatively impacted the attention given to HIV prevention. Correlating to the statewide increase in HIV infected cases from 2012 to 2015, there were significant staff reductions during this period. According to the state health department, staff position in the 67 county health departments declined from 12,759 to 10,519 in the past 5 years.
“The nature of HIV, a sexual transmitted disease, requires the efforts of a large compliment of staff, especially in the poorer neighborhoods of Miami-Dade and Broward,” said Newman.
Particularly damning, notes Miami social worker Gladys Wilks, is how the cuts have disproportionally affected minority communities, particularly in South Florida.
“I hate to associate the need for more HIV prevention methods with racism,” said Gladys Wilks, “but I believe there is not enough focus on a concentrated anti-AIDS/HIV campaign because the highest at-risk groups are in minority communities.”
State health officials however deny such neglect, arguing that “in the past five years, the state has consistently launched programs to address HIV and AIDS in minority communities, including the black community.”
But Don Beckles, a local affiliate of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, said these cuts ultimately affect education on the disease, which remains a “pivotal tool” in preventing HIV infections.
“Effective implementation of this education needs concerned, sensitive leadership and an army of public health workers people going house to house in high risk communities to educate people in the prevention of the infection,” said Beckles. “Florida cannot combat the spread of HIV infections with less public heath staff.”