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Pensacola Plans For World AIDS Day December 1st

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  Plans are almost final for next week's World AIDS Day observance in Pensacola. 

Maurice Moody is a member of the World AIDS Day Planning Committee in Pensacola. He was speaking at a press conference held Tuesday morning about plans for this year's World AIDS Day. He said the theme of this year's observance is "Getting To Zero".

Moody says this means, " Zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination, zero AIDS-related fatality. And, as an optimist, I believe we can do that."

The World AIDS Day ceremonies will be held this coming Monday, December 1st, at Martin Luther King Plaza in Downtown Pensacola. Dr. John Lanza, Director of the Florida Department of Health in  Escambia County talked about the number of people becoming infected in the U.S.

"It's estimated that over 50,000 Americans are newly infected with HIV each year and that there are currently close to 1.4 million Americans living with HIV," he said.

Closer to home, Escambia County ranks 15th in the number of new HIV cases in Florida and 19th in new AIDS cases. Dr. Lanza says with advances in testing and knowledge about HIV that the goal of getting to zero is possible. He remembered back in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

"I can remember the first HIV patient I took care of. Her name was Crystal, and she was four years old. I was a resident at Sacred Heart, this was 1986 or 1987, and this was the first case Sacred Heart had ever had of a pediatric AIDS patient. It took us months to figure out what was going on with her and finally one of the other residents said, 'Let's giver her an HIV test.' We still to this day don't know how she got HIV."

Today much more is known about how HIV is transmitted. Dr. Irwin Williams, Director of Specialty Services at Baptist Hospital's Lakeview Center says substance abusers are at particular risk.

"The issue is that when you are using substances it alters your rationality so you're more likely to get into risky kinds of risky behaviors that put you at risk for transmission of HIV. That's one of the issues, also, it's well known that injection drug use puts you at use because it's one of the main ways of transferring the HIV, particularly if you're sharing needles. Sometimes I think people underestimate, just even recreational use, we're used to people, say, going to parties, getting a little tipsy or whatever but you are likely to wind up leaving with somebody you didn't plant to leave with, etc. So those kinds of issues are where I think substance abuse is connected."

But the main form of HIV transmission remains unprotected sex. Josh Menge the Executive Director of the Red Ribbon Charitable Foundation says locally there are road blocks to teaching young people about how you catch HIV.

"In the south we're not very good about talking about sex. We think we are but, in reality, we aren't. One of the things that has contributed to the problem is that, in Florida, we have an abstinence-only based sexual education system. If you're not going to talk about how to prevent this disease sexually than you have very little chance of telling youth how to protect themselves."

Menge, who was at the press conference representing the Community HIV Prevention Partnership, says people diagnosed with HIV today have a much better chance at living a longer life.

"If you're diagnosed with HIV now you're put on what are called antiretroviral therapies and you can reduce with proper medication and proper adherence to those medications, you can decrease your viral load of HIV in your system to what they call undetectable. Recent studies are also showing that persons that are identified as HIV positive or living with AIDS, can be put on these medications, again, the earlier the better, in terms of treatment. But when you adhere to these medications and reduce your viral load to zero you greatly reduce your chances of transmitting that disease to others. In fact, in a two year study with partners not using condoms and having unprotected sex, both heterosexual and same sex couples, there were no infections of the HIV negative partners after two years, leading them to say that being at an undetectable viral load is the new negative."

Menge also says it's important for the community to come together for World AIDS Day.

"The main emphasis is both to get the message out that we still have an issue with HIV and AIDS in our local community and secondly it's an opportunity to remember those who have lost their fight with HIV and AIDS."

The World AIDS Day Ceremony will be held this Monday, December 1st at 6 pm at the Martin Luther King Plaza in Downtown Pensacola.