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South Florida treatment and training network targets blacks for HIV, AIDS prevention

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BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

432166_419749041404598_1128206845_n With Miami-Dade and Broward counties leading the U.S. in new HIV infections, the national Black AIDS Institute has launched a public-private treatment and training network to attempt to control the epidemic in South Florida.

“The South Florida AIDS community is one of the most heavily impacted communities in the country. With the nexus here, the connection between the Caribbean and the black community and the Latino community is a perfect place to do this kind of project,” said Phill Wilson, president and CEO of the Los Angeles-based Black AIDS Institute (pictured above).

There are approximately 125,000 people living with HIV in Florida, according to the state’s health department.

In 2011, Miami-Dade County reported 736 AIDS cases. Broward reported 1,040 new cases.

The black population has been hit disproportionately. Blacks account for 20 percent of Miami-Dade’s population, but make up 52 percent of reported AIDS cases and 44.7 percent of HIV infections reported through December 2008, according to the county health department.

Wilson’s group will invest between $50,000 and $70,000 to train locals in HIV science, community mobilization and sustainability. Since 2010, the institute’s Black Treatment Advocates Network (BTAN) has been implemented in Atlanta, Jackson, Miss., Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston and Los Angeles.

On Tuesday, Wilson and local AIDS activists gathered at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, 6161 NW 22nd Ave. in the heart of Liberty City to announce formation of networks in Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

“I watched the young black children as they walked back into their classrooms at the African Cultural Arts Center and I said to myself if we don’t end this epidemic, some of those children will be infected. That’s sad. I’m truly saddened just looking at them and knowing that their lives are in danger,” said Vanessa Mills, executive director of Empower “U,” a not-for-profit peer-based organization for people with HIV and AIDS.

“Stigma in HIV has not gone away. It’s still alive and well and fermenting in Liberty City. It grows every day. When we started Empower “U,” we had such an anonymous name,” said Mills, who is HIV positive. “People would not want to come to the agency if it had anything to do with HIV. Almost 14 years later, people are beginning not to want to come into Empower ‘U’ because it’s known as the HIV agency.”

Charles Martin, executive director of the South Beach AIDS Project, said one in four black gay men in Miami live with HIV and AIDS.

“We as a group of people are not embracing AIDS. We as a group of people are not looking at the red flag right in front of us,” he said. “This fight in HIV and AIDS, we as a community, the black community, we’re actually not doing good in the fight. The reason we’re not doing good is because we haven’t really entered the fight. There comes a time when we as a people, because we are a strong people -- we have endured and we have persevered -- but if we really, really are going to get past this hurdle, this obstacle in our way, then we have to learn to look at HIV and AIDS and realize that this is one of the most pressing issues for the black community and this country today.”

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For more information about the Black Treatment Advocates Network in South Florida, contact the South Beach AIDS Project, (305) 535-4733.

For more pictures, click here. All photos by STEVE ROTHAUS / Miami Herald Staff.

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