With the HIV infection rate reaching its highest level in Flagler County in 20 years in 2017, the Flagler Department of Health will offer free HIV screenings for county residents at the department’s facility in Bunnell on June 27 in recognition of National HIV Testing Day.
In 2017, the last year for which data is available, Flagler registered 20 new cases of HIV infection, up from nine the year before, and 11 or less in every year before that going back to 1998. The infection rate jumped to 18.9 per 100,000 residents, up from 8.7 in 2016. Flagler’s rate remains significantly lower than Florida’s, which stands at 24.1 per 100,000.
There’s not been a parallel increase in deaths from HIV/AIDS in the county: in 2017, the county registered three deaths from HIV/AIDS, the same as in 2015 and 2014. There were two deaths in 2016. The state’s rate tends to be slightly higher than Flagler’s, though in 2017 it fell to 3.2 per 100,000. The statewide rate has been below 4 per 100,000 for two years in a row.
In 2016, Florida reported 42 HIV cases per 100,000 population, the lowest rate since 2005. In 2015 it was 56, the year before that it was 65. Flagler County’s rate in 2016 was nine–in essence reflecting the number of HIV cases reported that year county-wide. The death rate from AIDS has fluctuated in Flagler, from a high of 8 in 2005 and 2009 to zero certain years.
“We are committed to reducing the prevalence of HIV in our community and helping those with the infection lead healthier lives,” said Robert Snyder, who heads the Flagler department. “In addition to offering routine screenings, we are reaching out to high-risk individuals for testing and to offer preventative treatment. We are re-engaging HIV positive persons into the care system, while raising awareness about high-risk behaviors, the importance of knowing one’s status and, if positive, quickly accessing and staying in treatment.”
The Flagler Health Department has offered HIV treatment for many years, with the program expanding in 2015 for medical care, in 2016 for case management, and in 2018 a team-based approach of coordinated care under the direction of Medical Director and physician Stephen Bickel. The local program continues to grow with nearly 100 participants and is demonstrating clinical success in reducing patients’ viral loads to undetectable levels.
Florida remains a national leader in HIV testing, with over 1,400 registered HIV test sites (including each county health department and community-based organizations) that provide high-quality, confidential testing services at low or no cost. Last year, more than 340,000 HIV tests were conducted through Florida’s registered HIV test sites.
To recognize National HIV Testing Day, the Flagler department will offer complimentary Rapid HIV Testing Wednesday, June 27 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 301 Dr. Carter Blvd. in Bunnell.
“Nationwide, about 14 percent of people with HIV do not know they have it,” Bickel said. “This translates to nearly 170,000 people who are at risk for serious complications of the HIV infection that can be largely prevented with early treatment.” Not knowing one is a carrier also risks exposing others to the virus. “For this reason, we strongly urge everyone ages 13-64 to be tested for HIV at least once, whether they perceive themselves to be at high risk or not.”
In addition to offering HIV medical care and case management, the department offers Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) medication through its Sexually Transmitted Disease and Family Planning Clinics. PrEP is a once-daily pill that can reduce the chance of HIV-negative individuals contracting the infection, particularly when used in conjunction with condoms. According to the Center for Disease Control, taking PrEP daily reduces the chance of getting HIV by more than 90 percent.
For more information about the HIV program in Flagler County, contact Mary Lachendro at 386-437-7350 ext. 7019. You can locate HIV counseling, testing and referral sites by visiting www.KnowYourHIVStatus.com or texting ‘FLHIV’ to 898211.
For more information, call the Florida HIV/AIDS Hotline at 1-800-FLA-AIDS or 1-800-352-2437; En Español, 1-800-545-SIDA; In Creole, 1-800-AIDS-101. To chat with a live counselor at the Florida HIV/AIDS Hotline, visit www.211bigbend.org/flhivaidshotline.