Advocate aims to reduce stigma of HIV testing at Civic Center health forum

Four of the 10 cities in the U.S. with the highest number of new HIV diagnoses are in Florida.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counts Kissimmee, Orlando and Sanford as one metropolitan area. It’s No. 6 on the CDC list.  

Miami and Ft. Lauderdale are No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. Jacksonville is No. 9.

Nationally, HIV infection rates are declining. But in Florida, the number of people passing and contracting the sexually transmitted virus is on the rise.

“It’s alarming,” said Kissimmee psychotherapist Eugenia Agard, organizer of an HIV health forum Friday in downtown Kissimmee.

“We’ve seen some progress in some areas. But overall, we still have a crisis,” she said.  

It’s the eighth year Agard has put on the public event in Osceola County. Attendees can get free HIV testing and get connected with medical and social services, both for newly diagnosed and those already living with HIV but not getting treatment.

HIV is a virus that can lead to the condition AIDS. Only humans can contract it. As the name implies, the virus attacks the immune system. But medications can control HIV successfully by interrupting its viral life cycle. HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus; AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

A diagnosis of HIV or AIDS once was considered a death sentence, particularly after it was first discovered in the U.S. in 1981. But today, almost 40 years later, an HIV-positive person who adheres to regular antiretroviral treatment can expect to live a near-normal lifespan and prevent the onset of AIDS.

Science has drastically improved outcomes for those living with the virus, but the social stigma persists because of fears, prejudices or negative attitudes about people with the virus.

A sense of shame related to an HIV diagnosis – whether real or perceived – deters many people from being tested, which fuels the spread of the virus.

“People don’t realize what’s going on because nobody talks about it anymore,” said Agard, referring to the high-profile public awareness campaigns for HIV/AIDS of the 1980s and 1990s.

Through her Kissimmee organization HUGS, Healing Understand Guiding and Supportive Services, Agard also provides free educational services to local schools on HIV/AIDS prevention.

“We want to educate the public. Many people, especially between the ages of 18 to 24, don’t know how it’s contracted and that’s one of the reasons why it’s still spreading,” Agard said.

Agard got involved with the HIV/AIDS treatment facility at the Osceola Health Department while interning there for her Ph.D. in behavioral health.

The ASPECTS clinic at the health department – an arm of the Florida Department of Health – is the only HIV/AIDS primary care provider in Osceola County, according to the department’s website. Its services include labs, immunization, AIDS Drug Assistance Program, Ryan White Part B eligibility assistance and referrals to case management, food pantry, transportation agencies and other specialists.

But it’s not enough, said Agard, which is why she started organizing an annual HIV/AIDS forum. This year it will also include testing and services for people with high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.

Agard said she incorporated other healthcare topics into the forum this year to chip away at the persistent stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. The event coincides with World AIDS Day on Saturday, Dec. 1.

“A Healing Health Forum” will be from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Kissimmee Civic Center. It’s open to the public and was designed to attract as many people as possible. Along with free health screenings, food and entertainment will be provided. Door prizes also will be given away.

“We are trying to eliminate all the barriers so that people can come,” Agard said. “The more we can normalize HIV testing, for example, the more we talk about it, the more people who know their status, the more we can reduce infection rates.”   

The forum has grown in size, scope and attendance since the first one in 2010, with help from the local health department and a growing number of individual physicians and organizations such as the Central Florida Black Nurses Association and Turning Point Central Florida, a substance abuse program that has specific programs for patients who also have HIV or AIDS.

This is the first year it’s gotten big enough to merit space at the Kissimmee Civic Center.  

“It’s not a fun subject. HIV/AIDS is like mental health: Nobody wants to talk about it. But they should,” Agard said. “The more we embrace and normalize testing, the better off we’ll be.”