Health News Florida: The Rising Tide Of HIV
There's a rising tide of HIV infections in Florida and the people being diagnosed don't fit into any one stereotype. But the same prejudices linger around HIV and those living with it.
All this week, Health News Florida is bringing you stories of this new generation of people with HIV - and the efforts to slow this rising tide of infection.
Health Reporter Abe Aboraya talks to 90.7's Matthew Peddie about his work on the series.
This story is one in a series about HIV in Florida. Check here for the full series.
MATT: So how did the idea for this series come about?
ABE: Believe it or not, this came from a phone call from a listener. The Center is a free HIV and hepatitis testing center in Orlando for the LGBT community, and their president called and said hey, HIV is this huge deal in Florida. We looked at the numbers he was he right. Miami alone has more new HIV cases than the entire state of New Jersey. And Orlando is No. 11 on the list cities with the most new HIV infections per capita. In fact, Orlando, Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville all had more infections per capita than San Francisco.
MATT: Wow. So what’s this series going to do this week?
ABE: We’re looking at different groups in Florida that are disproportionately impacted by HIV. Gay men, Floridians over 50, African Americans, the transgender community, and young people, age 13 to 24. And just as important, we’re trying not to get lost in all those statistics and have these stories just be a bunch of talking heads. We’ve really delved to bring the human side of HIV, the people who have this disease, and tell their stories.
MATT: You’ve been working on this series for months. What’s been the biggest surprise to you?
ABE: Well, here’s the scenario HIV people find themselves in. If you tell someone you have cancer, their response is 'Oh my God, that’s terrible, I’m so sorry this happened to you.’ That’s not what happens with HIV. When a person with HIV comes out with their diagnosis, people immediately think ‘what did you do?’ Because the impression is that HIV is completely preventable if you don’t have unprotected sex and don’t share needles. So if you get HIV, it’s because of something you did.
MATT: So HIV still has a stigma then.
ABE: Absolutely. I talked to several people who thought HIV was this death sentence and just refused to get tested, until something put them in the hospital or their hand was forced and they had to get a test. And for a lot of these people, this stigma isn’t some vague idea. Coming out as HIV positive means family members don’t want them around their kids, or someone they’ve been sexually active with for a decade will stop calling. So it’s a difficult diagnosis on these people.
MATT: The National Institutes of Health announced $100 million in grants over three years to find a cure for HIV. Some have even called it the holy grail of vaccines. What’s the current state of health care for HIV patients?
ABE: I’ll admit, I was not up to date on just how far along these drug cocktails have come. If you’re on your medications regularly, you can have T-cell numbers as high as someone without HIV, especially if you catch the disease early. You can suppress your viral load to the point of being undetectable, which makes it nearly impossible to spread HIV.
MATT: These drugs have come a long way, but are they affordable for patients?
ABE: Interestingly, it’s sometimes easier to get someone on medication who has no insurance than someone who has bad insurance. There’s actually been a lot of controversy in Florida because several health plans have listed all HIV medications, including generics, as top tier. That’s something state insurance officials are trying to address.
I spoke with an Orlando man named Will Blair. His drugs would cost $3,000 a month if he didn’t have insurance. And not to jump straight into the politics of HIV, but he gets insurance through Obamacare. Before, having HIV would be a pre-existing condition, which would disqualify you from most insurance.
“Obama pretty much saved my life," Blair said. "Being able to have insurance that wasn’t tied to my employer. Because my employment history, I work a job for a year or two years and change. I knew I couldn’t go any period of time and not have insurance.”
ABE: And another fun fact, these prescriptions come in 30 day supplies. So Blair picked up his first prescription and it was in July, which has 31 days in the month. He looked at it and say well what the heck do I do now?
MATT: Well how did he handle that?
ABE: He can fill his prescriptions every 25 days. So he does that every month no matter what and stockpiles the difference. That gives him a buffer, but comes with its own set of problems. Namely, now you have a valuable stockpile of HIV drugs that someone could steal.
MATT: I’m speaking with health reporter Abe Aboraya. Is there a political component to why HIV is such an issue in Florida?
ABE: The people I interviewed certainly believe so. I heard over and over again about how education is the key to bringing these HIV infection rates down. And not just hey kids, wear a condom. It’s got to be tailored to the audience. But this just isn’t being talked about. It’s not a priority in Tallahassee, and we don’t have leadership making this a top issue. And we don’t have big pots of money going to fight it. Here’s Aaron Sanford-Wetherell. He’s an HIV positive man who works at Hope and Help, a nonprofit in Orlando.
“If we could get a mayor or a governor or a senator to talk about the issue here, it would put some light on the fact that it is an issue in Orlando and it is an issue in Florida,” Sanford-Wetherell said.
MATT: So this lack of education and lack of leadership are maybe contributing to HIV at the state level. What about Orlando?
ABE: There are a couple things about Orlando. So we’re a transient area, a lot of tourists coming in and out for the theme parks. A lot of people coming in for a business conferences. I’ll let Steve Addonna explain this. He’s HIV positive peer mentor in Orlando.
“Orlando is a playground," Addona said. "A lot of things go with that playground. We create fantasy here. And who creates fantasy better than gay men?”
MATT: What about the role of technology. These apps and social networking sites, are they adding to the problem.
ABE: I think so. I got a rapid education on this. There’s Grindr, Jackd, Adam for Adam, BGC Live. There are even sites for people who don’t want to use protection. At the risk of sounding like a prude, I think technology has definitely made it easier for people to hook up anonymously. Here’s Will Blair again:
“It’s no longer going to the bar, someone see you from across the bar and starting to talk to that person," Blair said. "Now it’s turning on you phone, you have an hour lunch break from work, you’re horned up, and hey, this person’s across the street.”
MATT: Now several of the youth you talked to, they caught HIV from an unfaithful partner, right? So it may not even be your own lifestyle putting you at risk, right?
ABE: That’s definitely true. And in certain communities, particularly the African American and Latino communities, being gay is still very, very taboo. And that leads to a lot of what’s referred to as undercover or downlow. Men who have wives and children and families but hook up with men outside the marriage. It’s part of why African American women are at such high risk for contracting HIV.