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Stats are 'wake-up call' for AIDS prevention

By DANIEL SHOER ROTH, dshoer@miamiherald.com

225-0710prom_embedded_prod_affiliate_56 On Jan. 15, Stephon Louis tested positive for HIV at age 19. Weeks earlier, in a ''night of pleasure,'' he failed to use protection.

''When temptation rises, it's hard to think about HIV/AIDS,'' confessed Louis, now 20, who was kicked out of his home for being gay four years ago. ``At my age, you think that nothing is going to happen to you.''

Louis is part of a growing group of gay adolescents and young adults who are contracting HIV in South Florida and other parts of the nation. Recent Florida Department of Health statistics show that between 2001 and 2006, the number of patients from ages 13 to 24 diagnosed with HIV increased by an annual average of 9.5 percent. In contrast, the rate of infection decreased by 4.7 percent for the segment between the ages of 25 to 44.

''This is a wake-up call,'' said Spencer Lieb, senior epidemiologist with the state's Bureau of HIV/AIDS.

On Monday night I met with gay teens in Pridelines, a Miami support agency, and my suspicions were confirmed: They feel excluded from the prevention message, and they think they belong to a generation not affected by AIDS.

I'm not surprised that the rate of infection among the youth has increased precisely when our state legislators, following the White House's footsteps, have been sponsoring the message of ``abstinence until marriage.''

Gay teens in Florida know they can't get married, so why wait?

These teens are ethnic minorities from low-income families; many are still dealing with their sexual orientation and don't want their parents to find out. Barriers such as racism and the stigma of being gay sometimes impede access to preventive services. During our meeting, one expressed fear at bringing condoms home.

The crisis is getting worse thanks to the Florida Legislature. This year, it eliminated the high school requirement of the Life Management Skills course, the only class where prevention of HIV and other STDs is taught, noted Alex Moreno, director of outreach at the University of Miami medical school's division of adolescent medicine.

Tallahassee doesn't give a single penny to Miami-Dade schools' budget for HIV prevention. The School District depends on a competitive grant from the Centers for Disease Control to support the HIV/AIDS education program, where three people are responsible for the 347,731 students in the system.

Late last month, the CDC released a report based on figures from 33 states -- including Florida -- describing the ''troubling signs'' of an increase in HIV diagnoses for gay boys and men ages 13-24.

Their findings underline ''the need for continued effective testing and risk reduction interventions,'' particularly for those under age 25.

Miami-Dade had the highest rate of people living with AIDS in the nation in 2006. Among the tools to curb the epidemic are prevention campaigns that can successfully reach the most vulnerable. This should begin in schools, where the messages should take into account gay students' sensibilities.

As for Louis, he is working for a Miami agency that provides assistance for people with HIV/AIDS, spreading a message that came too late for him.

MARICE COHN BAND / MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Stephon Louis, 20, seen at a prom for young gay people, now helps others after testing positive for HIV.

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