On the heels of World AIDS Day, Hillsborough to offer free HIV testing Friday

click to enlarge Volunteers hand out information Tuesday in Williams Park. - daniel veintimilla
daniel veintimilla
Volunteers hand out information Tuesday in Williams Park.

World AIDS Day observances invariably include HIV/AIDS testing, which was the case in St. Petersburg on Tuesday, when the Florida Department of Health offered services in Williams Park. The initiative continues on Friday, Dec. 4, on the other side of the bay: the Hillsborough County Health Department will offer testing most of the day.

And that's a much-needed service, if recent stats are any indication.

According to a recent Florida Department of Health report, Florida has the highest number of new HIV diagnoses in the nation. Hillsborough County saw the largest increase: 63 percent from 2012 to 2014.

Hence all the health care workers spending a couple of days this week trying to help those who've contracted the virus become aware of their condition before it's too late.

"Our mission is to stop the infection and raise awareness across the community," said Beth Sudduth, MPH from the Pinellas County division of the Florida Department of Health, on Tuesday in St. Petersburg. "Our goal is to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and to give treatment and resources to those who are infected and affected by this epidemic."

Thankfully, with recent advances in the medicine, those diagnosed with HIV can now live healthy lives — but finding out as early as possible is key.

When the virus and the sickness it creates first began to spread decades ago, it was viewed as one that affected only gay men (though anyone can contract it) at a time when LGBT individuals had little mainstream support.

The stigmas surrounding the condition have largely eroded, but so apparently has concern about prevention, judging by the number of new cases occurring locally and statewide.

Helping to up the profile of World AIDS day on Tuesday were prominent local officials, including former governor and current U.S. Congressional candidate Charlie Crist.

“I'm just glad there's such a focus on this issue, that so many people are helped by it. It's truly a blessing,“ he said, afterward handing over a “Charlie Crist for Congress” card.

Friday's free HIV testing runs from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Hillsborough County Health Department at 1105 E. Kennedy Blvd. in Tampa.

On Saturday, Dec. 12., AIDS Walk Tampa Bay, a walk and fun run benefiting the AIDS Service Association of Pinellas and Empath Health, takes place at 8 a.m. More info on that event here.