Hot temperature, beautiful scenery and transit folks looking for fun set the scene for those who visit South Florida. The hope of hedonist-fused decadence draws tourists and transplants from all over the world. But sometimes risky behavior comes with a price.
Lurking beneath the art deco veneer, exotic cars, world-class restaurants and scantily dressed men and woman are those potentially infected with HIV. Scarier yet, a fair amount of those with the virus are oblivious to their illness because they have not been tested.
In 2011 the HIV/AIDS situation in Miami made national headlines when the city had the highest number of reported HIV/AIDS cases in the country. Twelve months later a 2012 report issued by Florida's Department of Public Health showed the situation worsening.
The 2012 report showed new HIV infections rose by 25 percent in Broward County, 30 percent in Palm Beach County and 21 percent statewide, while new cases of AIDS rose by 6 percent to 8 percent in those areas.
Despite outreach and heightened publicity surrounding this spike, in some communities there is still a laid back approach to "free love" mixed with rampant drug use. Those who engage in any of these high risk behaviors chance contracting and spreading the virus.
The moral of the story is clear: get tested. If you know someone who is sexually active and taking any high-risk chances encourage them to get tested -- and if you are using drugs -- the same applies.
In the early 1980s both the straight and gay communities realized that having unprotected sex was making them sick. Many were showing symptoms within a month and dying shortly thereafter. Though HIV/AIDS was once referred to as "gay cancer," the disease does not give a whit about your sexuality. The virus cares only about your high-risk behavior and the chances that you take with your health.
Remember the Ryan White days, when the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS was likened to having the plague? Through education, the rise in new cases lulled for a short while.
And then -- without warning -- HIV/AIDS cases came back with a vengeance.
14 years after the first cases of AIDS were seen in the U.S. in 1981, sharp increases were reported in the number of new AIDS diagnoses and deaths among people 13 and over.
By 1992, the CDC said there were 75,457 new AIDS diagnoses, compared to 318 in 1981. Deaths caused by the disease reached 50,628 in 1995, compared to 451 in 1981. AIDS diagnoses dropped 45 percent between 1993 and 1998, from 75,263 to 41,462.
AIDS deaths dropped 63 percent from 1995 to 1998, from 50,628 to 18,851. Some of the decrease was due to the newly available treatments.
Between 1999 and 2008, AIDS diagnoses remained stable at an average of 38,279 per year. Deaths caused by AIDS averaged 17,489 per year.
According to a 2012 report issued by Florida's Department of Health, about 60 percent of HIV-positive young people do not even know they are infected. The report also reveals that people ages 13 to 24 account for more than a quarter of the 50,000 new HIV infections each year. Yet these numbers only serve as a reminder of our failure to take action to protect us from a disease that is almost completely avoidable. Reading a blog or a fact sheet is not enough.
What should we do? Well, there is plenty. Beataids.org tells us to do the following:
First we have to get educated: learn what HIV is, and how it is transmitted. We also have a responsibility to get aware and understand your own personal risk of contact. Knowing the basics can save your life. Although there is now treatment that can control the disease, there is still no cure.
Get tested: get the test so you can know for sure. If you are positive, get treated! If you're HIV positive, early treatment will extend your life and reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to others. In any event, get safe: learn how to protect yourself and loved ones. Also, get loud. It is our responsibility to demand our government make HIV prevention, treatment and research a major priority and not just a talking point.
Oh, and donate. There are all kinds of worthy organizations that are on the ground speaking to those most at risk. If you are in South Florida, on April 28, 2013 Miami will host its 25th annual AIDS walk. The event is founded by one of the most legitimate and all-encompassing AIDS providers in South Florida, Care Resource, which has been around since the epidemic began.
Bringing awareness takes time, effort and money. The virus knows no borders and when full-blown, it has no mercy. Will this be the generation whose children forget the past and watch history repeat itself all over again? Will our nation's young believe that the very behavior that leads to infection is acceptable because our society -- and media -- focus more on medical advances without displaying the terrible effects the disease has socially, medically and mentally on those who contract it? Or will awareness, determination and resources be allocated to address this terminal illness once and for all?
I suspect time will tell.