Beach Community

South Beach AIDS Project Addresses HIV/AIDS with a Holistic Approach
by David Volz

SoBAP's CEO Charles Martin
The South Beach AIDS Project (SoBAP) is approaching the fight against HIV/AIDS from a wider angle.

Over the past few months, SoBAP has been testing people for syphilis and, over the next few weeks, will start testing for a range of sexually transmitted and other infections. Often people with syphilis also test positive for HIV. Syphilis infection is considered a cofactor of HIV infection and progression. This is especially true in the gay community of South Florida, which includes South Beach, near Miami. This area has one of the highest incidences of syphilis in Florida and the United States, according to Charles Martin, CEO of the South Beach AIDS Project.

“To reach people now, you have to test not just for HIV but for general health,” says Martin. “Many people are more comfortable being tested for syphilis rather than HIV.”

SoBAP wants to work with the entire South Beach community. One important objective is to make people more comfortable with the idea of being tested. Martin said it is very important to give people the tools and knowledge to deal with HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, in general, and make sure those who need proper treatment receive it.

“We are testing people for sexually transmitted infections for free and we work closely with the Miami-County Health Department and the Florida Bureau of Sexually Transmitted Diseases. We just started testing people for syphilis and will be starting on tests for gonorrhea, chlamydia and hepatitis C.”

Martin shares that SoBAP has received county, state and federal funds, and also funds from private foundations, to run these tests.

“We are doing this to make a difference in the fight against HIV/AIDS,” he says. “We are finding more people who are positive for HIV/AIDS. We help them transition into services.”

Martin said that SoBAP tests about 2,000 individuals a year. He believes it is very important that these tests are made available to the public.

“The earlier you can catch HIV/AIDS the more options people have for treatment,” says Martin. “Also people tend to be the most infectious during the first couple of months after they are infected.”

When diagnosed, people who are HIV-positive are being helped to not inadvertently spread the virus.

There has also been an increase in first-time tests coming back positive.

“This shows we are testing people who may not have known they were positive,” said Martin. “We are helping the community as a whole.”

SoBAP is making a strong effort to encourage people to receive testing. The organization advertises on bus stops and in gay newspapers. People who come in for testing are treated with respect and are not judged.

“Because we are a gay and minority agency, that is our focus,” says Martin. “I think community-based organizations will offer more than just testing, they will hand out condoms. They will provide needed services.”

SoBAP was created in 1993. At the time there were few people advocating for those who had HIV/AIDS. Many political leaders just were not interested in helping people with HIV/AIDS.

“The goal was to help those who were infected and dying all alone,” states Martin.

Over time, SoBAP has become an agency that works with prevention, education, testing, and counseling for the community. The agency has evolved along with the community as it becomes more impacted by HIV/AIDS. SoBAP was one of the first organizations in Florida to offer rapid testing, and has now begun conducting research.

Also, SoBAP has acted as a voice for people with HIV/AIDS who have not been heard. “We are friends to those who others have turned their backs on. Many people with HIV/AIDS have experienced discrimination.”

Martin says that SoBAP is one of the few community-based organizations that tests for a wide variety of sexually transmitted diseases. “We have worked hard to make a difference in our community and statewide. All the people who work for our organization have a passion for the services that we offer,” says Martin.

HIV/AIDS remains a major problem in South Florida and one that SoBAP is working hard to address. Florida has the third-highest number of HIV/AIDS cases in the United States. Miami-Dade County has the highest number of HIV/AIDS cases in Florida. Broward County, just to the north, has the second-highest number of cases. More than 4,000 HIV/AIDS cases are diagnosed in Florida every year and many of these cases are in the Miami area, according to the Florida Heath Department.

SoBAP strengthens community through its various programs. Many Men, Many Voices is a seven-session group intervention program to encourage safer sex among African-American men. The program is designed to reach all African-American men and to show them ways to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS.

Broward House, which serves a large community dealing with HIV/AIDS, also has a strong outreach program to help people with the disease. For example, Broward House organizes a large rally on World AIDS Day that usually attracts about 2,000 people and political leaders from the South Florida community.

Terry DeCarlo, spokesperson for Broward House, shares that he is pleased that many people participate in the World AIDS Day event, which takes place near Fort Lauderdale; however, he would like to see more people play an active role in fighting the disease every day of the year. He is a strong believer in the power of education in preventing the transmission of HIV. He also wants people to understand the critical importance of practicing safer sex.

The South Beach AIDS Project and Broward House are making a positive difference in the fight against HIV/AIDS. They are staffed by hardworking and dedicated individuals who want to help and advocate for people with HIV/AIDS.

“We have too many people who are dying of AIDS,” he says. “HIV/AIDS is a major health threat and South Florida has an infection rate that is too high. It is especially too high among young people.”

David Volz has twenty-five years of experience as a journalist. His work has appeared in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald, and Physician’s Financial News. He also teaches public speaking at Miami-Dade College.

December 2011