According to the 2011 HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Jacksonville ranks 10th in the nation for new HIV infections.
“We have a significant epidemic among young people in Jacksonville when it comes to sexually transmitted infections,” said Cindy Watson, executive director of Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network (JASMYN).
One of the greatest challenges of combating preventable sexually transmitted infections (STI) that adversely impact community health is providing access to education and testing. The burdensome cost of health care and cultural stigma often results in high incidences of these diseases in low-moderate income areas.
But if socioeconomic disadvantages continue to equate to severe health care disparities, then our quality of life as a community will suffer long-term. When it comes to public health, we all play a role in determining the outcomes.
CDC has identified a number of specific factors inhibiting HIV prevention, including social and economic disparities, infection awareness, lack of resources and diverse populations. These are big challenges, but decades of research has shown us that there are steps we can take to make a measurable difference.
We do know that awareness, testing and access can make a dramatic impact in reducing infection rates. Because of this, United Way convened expert state and local agencies to offer free health clinics at select Full Service Schools sites.
A CDC grant administered by Duval County Public Schools has paved the way for the Duval County Health Department to administer accessible testing, treatment and education to students at three family resource centers in Jacksonville. JASMYN is also a key partner, assisting in intake and connecting youth to educational and support resources.
“Teens are being treated on site in a safe environment with the sense that people care about them,” added Watson.
This strategy represents a critical step in realizing that the next generation does not have to inherit a previous generation’s preventable epidemic, and that by providing these services, we are helping lift up our entire community.
In opening the clinics at Full Service Schools Family Resource Centers, the well-being of the students is put first. Youth can get information and testing in a comfortable environment, where the focus is on the person’s quality of life.
“Being on or near a school eliminates the barriers to transportation, which huge in our city,” said MJ Cranston, an HIV Testing coordinator with JASMYN.
The program, which entered its third year in 2014-2015, has found that students want the education, with 15-20 students filling the space during clinic hours. Many who stay for the education eventually get tested for HIV and STIs, and are able to be linked with services and even treatment onsite. Students feel safe asking questions and often find that they didn’t know as much as they thought they did about healthy behaviors.
The model is based on JASMYN’s own tried and true system: education provides the awareness and vocabulary that can lead to better habits, better discussions and safer behavior, while testing helps individuals make the right decisions for their health and reduces the transmission of disease.
“We’re bringing community partners together to make this possible,” said Watson. “We’ve been able to ramp up comprehensive education to link health classes in school with services available on or near campus.”
Working together, these components can help make a significant, positive difference in the quality of life and health of our community and young people.