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Florida's efforts to stem epidemic among African Americans employ novel tactics
Prevention messages go out to football fans
The Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee has formed partnerships with the state's faith community, the department of corrections, black leaders, and the NAACP in its efforts to improve HIV testing, prevention, treatment, and care among African Americans.
The state launched a campaign called Silence is Death in September, 2006, as part of a statewide educational campaign to highlight how black communities and counties in Florida have a high rate of HIV/AIDS, especially among African Americans.
"We're working with historically black colleges, and that helps mobilize the community and allows us to better integrate our HIV messages within events within the African American community," says Tom Liberti, chief of the bureau of HIV/AIDS, Florida Department of Health.
For example, at the suggestion of Ronald Henderson, the statewide minority AIDS coordinator, the state promoted HIV prevention messages at a large African American football game called the Florida Classic in which 2 black colleges competed in a 75,000-person stadium in Orlando, Liberti says.
"They're there to celebrate football, but Ron said, 'Let's put an AIDS message in the program, on TV, in the stadium, whatever it took,'" Liberti says. "And that's the kind of thing that mobilizes all the things in the community to fight HIV."
During the November weekend of the Florida Classic, community-based organizations (CBOs) in Orlando helped with the prevention efforts, he adds.
Henderson also has asked counties with the highest rates of HIV/AIDS to give the state health department their action plans on how to lower rates, increase HIV testing, and reduce stigma in the African American community.
"We have outstanding partnerships with some black churches in Florida, and we've convened several meetings with faith leaders," Henderson says. "Last year, we invited the leadership of all the faith-based denominations to Tallahassee."
While there, the faith leaders met to hear about the epidemic and were asked to offer their support, he adds.
"That's a good example of where we invited the president and bishops at the highest church levels, who oversee thousands of black churches," Liberti says. "If we won them over and got them to commit to do something then they would pass that down to their congregations of hundreds, if not thousands, of folks."
As a result, the last black church week of prayer resulted in a great deal of press coverage for HIV awareness, Henderson says.
Also, the AME church has committed to having one AME church in every county to be an HIV testing site, and some black churches are preaching about HIV/AIDS from the pulpit, Henderson says.
State health officials provide the churches with educational material, and they leave it up to the churches to select the type of information they want, Liberti says.
"When we talk to the pastors they tell us what type of material they need, and it might be condoms, a message that talks about abstinence, and other options," Henderson says. "It depends on the church."
For instance, one Miami minister has a full-scale AIDS ministry in which the church provides food, shelter, condoms, and referral resources for people living with HIV, Liberti says.
"So with thousands of churches in the state, we let them describe their level of involvement and go from there," Liberti adds.
Another church in West Palm Beach receives state funding to send out a van that provides HIV testing and education in the community, Henderson notes.
Florida HIV/AIDS officials also have partnered with the entertainment industry to extend their outreach efforts.
For example, Black Entertainment Television (BET) partners with the state each year when hosting their "Spring Bling" on a Florida beach, Henderson says.
"They bring in all of these entertainers, and we are there offering testing while folks are standing in line," Henderson says. "BET provides us with a tent, incentives, and we're testing their participants over those 2 days."
At the Spring Bling in West Palm Beach this year, more than 100 people were tested, he adds.
Likewise, the annual NAACP statewide convention has the state's health department as a cosponsor to talk about HIV and other health disparities. When the convention is held this September, the Florida Surgeon General will be a keynote speaker, Henderson says.
Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, GA, were so impressed with Florida's Silence is Death testing and awareness campaign that they called Florida officials to learn how it was done, Liberti says.
"We've been the third largest state in the country for the HIV epidemic, and we've been involved with CDC HIV planning," he adds.
The state's Silence is Death initiative was created to break the silence about HIV/AIDS in the black community, Henderson says.
"We want to encourage African Americans to be tested and encourage local governments to respond to their HIV/AIDS epidemics," Henderson explains. "We use the initiative to reduce barriers to HIV testing, prevention, and care, and we also want local areas to stimulate a plan of action to address HIV/AIDS in the black community."
All of these efforts will be sustained as part of a long-term strategy, Liberti notes.
"The bottom line is that this epidemic in the black community didn't come overnight, and you have to make a long-term commitment and resources to fight HIV/AIDS," he says.