Raising awareness

With HIV infection rates exploding to nearly all-time highs among young,gay men, public health officials are scrambling to reinforce the messageof safe sex.

That’s perhaps easier said than done.

According to the Center for Disease Control, almost 15 percent of gayand bisexual men aged 23 to 29 contract the HIV virus each year – aswitch from recent years when young gay infection rates have stayedrelatively lower than other demographics.

Those numbers are almost as high as infection rates in the early 1980s,when safe sex and tolerance for the virus was virtually non-existent.Two decades later, growing indifference and ignorance may be driving thenumbers up once again, according to Dr. Michael Sharinus, associatedirector for USF’s Center for HIV/AIDS Education and Research.

“I am concerned: there’s been a trend where younger people – collegeaged and into the 20s – are starting to get a bit lapse in safer sexpractices,” Sharinus said. “I know there’s a lot of data suggestingyounger people, especially younger gay males, are not following safersex practices.”

According to the Tampa AIDS Network, two Americans under age 20 becomeinfected with HIV every hour. Overall, 40,000 people are newly infectedyearly, and up to 900,000 people in the United States live with thevirus or the more advanced AIDS.

In Tampa, 19 percent of new HIV cases are diagnosed in people aged 20 to29, according to the CDC. African Americans account for 51 percent andHispanics account for 12 percent of reported HIV cases in HillsboroughCounty.

But statistics are just part of the HIV awareness message. Most healthcare professionals agree that an individual must become personallyresponsible, and take action to know his or her HIV status, and to knowthe status of all sexual partners.

TAN, along with several other Tampa Bay-area organizations, provide freeand anonymous HIV testing. TAN is coordinating the local effort forNational HIV Testing Day Wednesday, and will operate six free testingsites around the Bay area. Near campus, TAN will be testing at the NorthTAN Offices at 7402 N. 56th Street from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. and at theUniversity Area Community Center at 14013 N. 22nd Street from 2 p.m. to7 p.m.

There are two methods TAN uses to test for the HIV virus – a blood testusing a needle and a swab in the mouth called Orasure.

The test results take two weeks and are completely anonymous.Unfortunately, since there are still major stigmas and stereotypesassociated with AIDS, it may be embarrassing or otherwise difficult forpeople to get tested, according to Mary Ann Green, community resourcemanager for TAN.

“I don’t think people go out of their way to give people who are beingtested problems,” Green said. “But there are still stigmas attached withthe disease, especially people in ethnic communities likeAfrican-American or Hispanic. There is some backlash.”

But more than backlash from the community, most people are often afraidof the impact the test results will have on their lives.

“People are afraid of everything from being stuck by a needle, to ‘IfI’m positive, how do I tell the person I’m in a relationship with? Howdo I confront that person?'” Green said. “I think there?s a lot runningthrough peoples’ minds. We’ve had people come in and didn’t believe theywere at risk, and test positive. We’ve had people who were very much atrisk and come back negative.”

Sharinus said everyone has a responsibility to know for certain his orher HIV status, regardless of what he or she assumes it is.

“I think anyone who is sexually active should be tested for HIV unlessthey are absolutely sure they’re in a monogamous relationship,” Sharinussaid. “You may know what your behavior is like, but you can’t alwaysknow what your partner’s behavior is.”

For now, all these outreach groups can do is offer testing, try toeducate people and hope infection rates begin to fall again.More than testing, TAN offers other community outreach programs.

“We provide case management services, outreach and prevention,” Greensaid. “We do everything from formal training to actually going out intobars and distributing condoms.”

But community outreach and education may not be enough. According tojunior Ebonie Coleman, students are often informed about the risks ofunsafe sex, but probably choose to ignore the information.

“They probably are well-informed, but they don’t take caution all thetime,” Coleman said. “All of the info is already out there and easilyaccessible. The people have to make an actual effort to use it.”

According to sophomore Michael Cross, the responsibility ultimately lieswith each student and not the teachings of an outreach group or theuniversity itself.

“I don’t think it’s USF’s responsibility alone,” he said. “I believethat unless people are actively seeking to learn about the dangers, theywill remain detached from the facts and not realize how they arepersonally affected.”