Hope & Help to increase HIV awareness as Orlando among top areas with new diagnoses

By : Jeremy Williams
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ABOVE: Members of Hope & Help’s staff at their Orlando offices. (Photo by Jeremy Williams)

ORLANDO | In the wake of the latest stats on HIV in the U.S., Hope & Help is looking to increase its visibility in the LGBTQ community. According to the latest numbers from AIDSVu, Central Florida ranks second in the U.S. for most new HIV diagnoses, only behind the Miami-Dade area.

The fact that the top two areas with the largest number of new cases are both in Florida is not surprising to Abby Silverman, operations director at Hope & Help.

“We don’t have comprehensive sex education. We currently don’t have clean needle exchange programs. We didn’t expand on Medicaid, we’ve been behind the curve as a state in terms of our policies, our education and our practices,” Silverman says. “San Francisco, New York, D.C., Philadelphia; you go to these cities and the messaging is everywhere. And it’s fun, it’s positive and it’s sexy. You come to Florida, it’s crickets; you don’t see it.”

Lack of education and awareness are key factors why numbers of new transmissions have continued to climb in Central Florida over the last decade. According to Hope & Help, one in every seven people living with HIV don’t even know they have the virus.

Hope & Help’s offices, as well as The LGBT+ Center, offer free HIV testing. Getting tested and finding those who are HIV-positive early is the key to preventing the spread of the virus.

“The earlier we can get someone who has tested positive on treatment, we can get their viral load undetectable making them untransmittable,” says Scott Bowles, a peer specialist with Hope & Help.

Education on safer sexual habits is another key area to combating HIV, especially within the younger communities. Hope & Help is launching an ambassador program within local area schools, according to Lisa Barr, Hope & Help’s executive director.

“Talking with your peers is much different than having some old white lady come in,” says Barr. “Now you’ve got somebody who’s a friend of yours saying, ‘Hey, man, you need to put a raincoat on.’ Those are the kinds of things that we’re trying to foster in the messaging.”

Higher-risk groups have PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) as an option as well for HIV prevention. The Florida Department of Health announced earlier this year it will begin offering PrEP at all locations statewide for free by the end of 2019.

Hope & Help also has a mail delivery condom program to promote healthier sexual behavior.

“You don’t even need to come in,” Barr says. “They are delivered free to your home. We want people to know that they need to protect themselves.”

For more information on programs, support groups and health services offered by Hope & Help, visit HopeAndHelp.org.

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