Foiling HIV Fear

South Beach is famous for its frenzied and bootylicious nightlife, its beaches and all-out debauchery. The profile is brought to life on any given holiday weekend as the place erupts with pleasure-seekers from all over the world. Unfortunately one claim to fame is often ignored by glossy travel brochures and MTV spring break shows. Our little strip of sun, sand, and sin remains one of the top three hot spots in the nation for transmitting HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control, a distinction we've held for well over ten years.

Although word of HIV's prevalence is kept on the down low while the spotlight shines on the muscle boys, hip-hop honchos, and J.Lo wannabes along Washington Avenue, those who confront the disease -- medical professionals, counselors, volunteer outreach workers -- are kept busy discreetly letting people know what they can do to minimize the risks of being infected.

The South Beach AIDS Project is among a handful of groups on the Beach that provide anonymous HIV testing, as well as support groups for people of all sexual orientations and ethnicities. SoBAP recently became the first community organization in South Florida to provide a new HIV test that gives results in less than one hour.

The test, known as the Ora-Quick, gives accurate preliminary results by drawing a drop of blood with a pinprick to the thumb or finger. The rapid findings are a dramatic change from the traditional blood test and saliva sample tests, which take from ten days to two weeks.

What would be the advantage, you may ask? More people who are at risk will know their status, says Kevin Garrity, executive director of SoBAP. "Only 30 percent of people who test come back for their results," he explains, pointing out that half of the results that people don't return for have been positive. "The real benefit is that we don't lose them because of their fear. We keep them in-house and then refer them to medical treatment and counseling programs."

SoBAP is the only group in South Florida to offer Ora-Quick. It is part of a program with the Florida Department of Health that is providing the rapid results as a way of curbing the spread of HIV by people who are unaware of their status.

The fact that so many people aren't following up on their tests only points to the grave consequences we face, Garrity says, as AIDS continues to fade from headlines. Ignoring the disease, however, doesn't mitigate the tension that comes with discovering one's status.

"With the rapid testing it's a matter of twenty minutes of stress as opposed to ten days of stress," Garrity says. "It will make a big difference."

SoBAP provides the rapid testing as well as the slower blood or saliva screenings from 2:00 to 9:00 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and from noon to 6:00 p.m. Saturday at the South Beach Wellness Center, 306 Lincoln Rd. (inside the CVS Pharmacy). Testing is free. Call 305-532-1033.

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Juan Carlos Rodriguez