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Florida DOH unveils new anti-HIV campaign

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Bob Barrett
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WUWF Public Media
Left to right: Dr. Vanessa Phillips of FDOH, Escambia County Commissioner Lumon May, Maurice Moody of FDOH, and Erica Douglas of Community Health Northwest Florida.

The Florida Department of Health in Escambia County is making a new push in the local fight against HIV.

“The message is very simple, U equals U. That means undetectable equals untransmittable,” said Maurice Moody, HIV/AIDS program coordinator at the Florida Department of Health in Escambia County. “So when a person is HIV positive and has an undetectable viral load, he or she cannot sexually transmit HIV, and that is a game-changer.”

The viral load is simply the amount of virus that is detectable in a patient’s blood. Once that load sinks below a certain level, it is considered undetectable.

“So having those who are (HIV) positive become undetectable is one of the ways in which we are going to get to zero," said Moody. "Now, getting to zero simply means no more HIV infections and no more AIDS-related deaths.”

The Department of Health announced the acceleration of the U equals U campaign at a press conference in Pensacola on Wednesday morning. The department is continuing to ramp up its testing and treatment programs in the county.

Over the past year, the number of people getting tested in the county dropped significantly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “There was indeed a pause, even in our night clinic," said Moody. "We have a free HIV night clinic at the Florida Department of Health every first Thursday of the month, and before COVID we were seeing about 12 individuals (each night). During COVID that number shrank to one or two. However, in our last night clinic this past Thursday we saw 13 individuals come through, so the numbers are picking up.”

“Of new cases that were diagnosed in Escambia County in 2020, 60% of them were African-American,” said Escambia County District 3 Commissioner Luman May. “You can encourage your neighbors, your nephew, your nieces, your cousins, your brothers to please get tested. Whether they are getting tested for HIV or getting tested for high blood pressure or diabetes or whether they are getting tested for COVID-19. Because we should not lose another individual due to any of these chronic diseases.”

The Florida Department of Health has made reducing transmission of HIV one of its priority goals. “And we’ve adopted a comprehensive, strategic approach to preventing HIV transmission and strengthening patient care activities,” said Dr. Vanessa Phillips, division director at the Florida Department of Health. She says the department is attacking the problem in several ways. “We’re implementing routine HIV and sexually transmitted infection screenings in both health care settings and non-healthcare settings. We’ve provided rapid access to treatment. We test, we treat. We’ve provided and promoted access to medicines like PrEP.”

“PrEP is an excellent prevention tool. It stands for ‘pre-exposure prophylaxis, and it is a medication that can prevent one from acquiring HIV,” said Maurice Moody.

PrEP is recommended for people who have multiple sex partners or are in a relationship with someone who is HIV positive.

“We have a PrEP clinic at the Florida Department of Health in Escambia County," said Moody. "If anyone is interested, I can link that person to our PrEP navigator. It’s a great way of stopping the spread of HIV.”

You can get that hook-up and more information by calling 850-595-6500, extension 1500. PrEP is available on a sliding-scale cost basis and may be available at no charge to low-income individuals.

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.