Did you know that people with HIV can live long and healthy lives? With testing, prevention and treatment working together, it is possible.
Empath Partners in Care (EPIC), a member of Empath Health, offers a wide range of health care and support resources for people impacted by HIV and AIDS throughout Tampa Bay.
February 7 marks Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, an important topic for our community. In 2018, Florida ranked number three in the country for highest rates of new HIV infections – 21.5% of all new cases in the United States. People age 20-29 and those 50+ are the most likely to be affected.
In Pinellas County, 42% of new cases in 2018 were in African Americans. Overall in Florida, Black males are diagnosed with HIV at a rate of 4.5 individuals to every one white male. Additionally, 1 in 7 African Americans with HIV are unaware they have it.
If you don’t know you have the virus, you can’t take the right steps to keep yourself and your partner(s) healthy. That’s why testing is a key step in reducing transmission rates.
“People should get tested just to know their status or when starting a new relationship,” explains Micah Madir, prevention and outreach specialist for EPIC. “We suggest retesting every three to six months, especially for those who have multiple partners or share needles.”
It’s easy to know your status with EPIC providing two options for no-cost HIV testing: in the office and an at-home kit.
The test completed in the office is a rapid blood test that takes only a few minutes to complete. The at-home test, requested online, is an oral swab that shows results in about 20 minutes and comes with step-by-step directions. After an initial phone call, the kit is usually received in about a day.
While all testing is completely confidential, the at-home test kit is a good option for those who are nervous about coming into the office or may want a little extra time or space to process their result.
Whether you choose to get tested in person or at home, an EPIC team member, like Madir, is there every step of the way with pre- and post-test counselling. If the result is positive, you are immediately set up with a case manager who can discuss medications and other resources for living with HIV. If the result is negative, the discussion is focused on prevention.
Talking about prevention might include going over safe sex practices, such as how to use condoms and providing them if needed, or discussion of pre-exposure medication, known as PrEP. When taken regularly this medication can prevent HIV from being contracted.
“I’m a big advocate for PrEP. It can be a wonderful option,” adds Madir. “I often hear about people who are afraid to be in a relationship because of HIV. PrEP can help overcome that fear.”
Madir encourages anyone who thinks PrEP may be right for them to do their own research and then talk to a prevention specialist at EPIC, who can help answer questions and dispel any misconceptions.
“One of the biggest things I hear about HIV/AIDS is how it is spread. Many think it’s through kissing or sharing food. Or they think they can’t get it because they aren’t gay,” explains Micah. “People may not want to talk about sex but we need to have these conversations, especially around what can happen when it is unsafe.”
Outside of conversations during testing, EPIC’s outreach team is also available to talk to groups about sexual education topics in person or via Zoom. This education component is an important part of reducing the stigma and misinformation that surrounds HIV.
“Ignorance leads to fear and that feeds the stigma,” adds Micah. “Education is important as we work to stop the spread of HIV.”
Learn more about the medical care, counseling, support and prevention services offered by EPIC for people living with HIV and AIDS.