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Almost 1,500 people in Charlotte, DeSoto and Sarasota counties are living with HIV.

This makes up almost 1% of the 119,661 people living with HIV statewide, according to 2018 data from the Florida Department of Health.

World AIDS Day was on Dec. 1, where the theme was “Ending the HIV Epidemic: Community by Community,” and emphasizing the importance of getting tested.

HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, weakens a person’s immune system by destroying important cells that fight disease and infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Once an infected person’s immune system is badly damaged, they are in stage three of their disease, otherwise known as AIDS. With AIDS, the patient can contract severe illnesses that their body is unable to fight off.

“Our state experiences a high burden of the HIV epidemic,” said Charlotte County Department of Health spokesperson Meranda Pitt in a statement. “The Department is committed to connecting people to the resources they need to be able to live long, healthy lives.”

In 2016, Florida residents made up 10% of the 1 million people living in the U.S. with HIV, according to the CDC.

Florida has the third-highest rate of people living with HIV with 610.8 diagnoses per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state is behind the District of Columbia, which has a rate of 2,459.9 diagnoses per 100,000 people, and New York, which has a rate of 759.7 diagnoses per 100,000 people.

HIV Cases

People Living with HIV (2018) Rate of People Living with HIV per 100,000 Population (2018) New HIV Diagnoses (2018) New HIV Diagnoses (2008)
Charlotte County 329 187.6 7 10
DeSoto County 152 422.9 1 6
Sarasota County 1,018 244.8 32 52
Florida 119,661 571.0 4,906 6,036

Florida also has the third-highest rate of diagnosis in the U.S., according to the CDC.

More than half of the 4,906 new diagnoses statewide were among people between the ages of 20 to 39.

HIV can only be spread via blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids and breast milk, according to the CDC. HIV is usually transmitted by having anal or vaginal sex with an infected person without using a condom or taking preventative medication, or sharing needles with someone who has the disease. There are also less common forms of transmitting the disease.

A majority of people in Florida with HIV caught the disease through sex, with half contracting it via male-to-male sexual intercourse, and almost 37% contracting it via heterosexual intercourse, according to the Florida Department of Health.

The first step of living with HIV? Get tested.

“Earlier diagnosis leads to more successful treatment,” Pitt said. If patients get immediate treatment with antiretroviral therapy, or ART, they can typically lead a long, healthy life. ART can also be used for HIV prevention and reduces the amount of HIV in the body, making it harder to transmit to others.

The Department of Health in Charlotte County offers confidential HIV testing and counseling as well as Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, or PrEP, an anti-HIV medication to prevent those at risk from becoming infected.

Tests are offered to all of the department’s clients and is “considered a routine medical care regardless of individual risk factors. It is important for an individual to know their status,” said Joseph Pepe, the department’s health officer. “Together we have focused on ensuring a more efficient and effective approach towards serving our community.”

Over the past year, the Florida Department of Health in Charlotte County has ordered over 370 tests as a part of routine surveillance, Pitt said. The department also works with the Virginia B. Andes Center, which has a clinic for persons living with HIV.

For questions about services, call 941-624-7200. To find a place to get tested, visit www.KnowYourHIVStatus.com.

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