According to statistics reported by the Florida Department of Health earlier this year, Florida has the highest number of new HIV diagnoses in the nation, with Hillsborough County having the largest increase — 63 percent from 2012 to 2014.
According to Michael Ruppel, Executive Director with the AIDS Institute in Tampa, one of the factors why Florida has the most new HIV diagnoses is that people who were already diagnosed in other states are moving to Florida, ending up in the state’s surveillance system.
“But our biggest concern is that there are actual new infections, people being infected, people that are not getting prevention messages, and don’t know that they’re infected, and unfortunately infecting others,” he said.
Tuesday morning, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn joined Ruppel in participating in a ribbon-cutting ceremony on World AIDS Day for the AIDS Memorial Park located off Bayshore Boulevard at West Hyde Park Boulevard.
“This park is a reminder to us of the struggle’s not over,” Buckhorn told the audience who gathered at the event, after asking for a moment of silence to remember those who have died from the virus since it began in the U.S. in the early 1980s.
“This park means a lot to the HIV community,” said Ruppel in his remarks. “For those that we had lost to HIV and AIDS. It stands as a reminder every single day, that there are people living with HIV, our friends, our family, our co-workers, every day of their lives, and there is no cure, and it also stands as a symbol of hope, hope that were going to get people tested for HIV.”
The original AIDS Memorial Park in Tampa was constructed in 2005, but it was closed in October of 2012 as construction began for an apartment complex by developer Crescent Communities. In a deal made with the city, Crescent built the new, more improved park, which received its grand opening today.
Rupees says the best thing that the state could have done recently to improve its statistics when it comes to new HIV transmissions was to support Medicaid expansion, a push by Democrats and Senate Republicans in the state Legislature that appears to be dead on arrival in the upcoming legislative session, which has been the case in the two most recent sessions.
“That would have brought people into care,” he said. “It would have been able to provide free HIV/AIDS testing and have access to people who didn’t have access before,” he said, adding that data shows that when infected people know that they are HIV positive, they’re more likely to get treatment and improve their condition.
In the upcoming session that begins next month, once again lawmakers will debate a proposal to create a pilot program on needle exchange in Miami, something that Ruppel says needs to get passed.
“It will increase the opportunities for people who are using injection drugs to have contact with a health professional that can talk to them not only about that issue, but protecting themselves from diseases,” he says.
In the interim, Buckhorn says the new AIDS Memorial Park is now open for people to visit and pay homage to those lives who have been lost due to the virus, but is also a place to celebrate life. “Not only the lives of those who have been lost to HIV, but equally important, a life of a great American city.”