Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday April 25th 2018

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Escambia County’s Secret

By Hana Frenette / Contributing  Reporting by Rick Ouzten

Psst, Escambia County has an HIV/AIDS problem. It’s not something our community leaders want to talk about, but the latest statistics are alarming.

Escambia County is ranked second in the state for most reported cases of women and children and is ranked 12th out of 67 counties in Florida for the most reported HIV/AIDS cases. One out of 44 African-American males living in Escambia County is HIV positive. Twenty-five percent of all new AIDS cases in Escambia County were in people 25 years old and younger.

According to the Center for Disease Control, the South has the largest number of persons living with an AIDS diagnosis in its metropolitan and rural areas. In its “HIV Surveillance in Urban and Nonurban Areas” report that was issued in December 2009, the CDC reported, “Although metropolitan areas with populations of more than 500,000 have the largest number of AIDS cases, smaller metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas, especially in the South, share a substantial burden of the AIDS epidemic.”

Escambia County is the poster child for the AIDS epidemic in the region and state, with a 23-percent increase since 2005 in persons living in the county with HIV/AIDS. The county also ranks high in sexually-transmitted diseases, such as gonorrhea (ranked 10th in Florida) and Chlamydia (13th).


Experts believe misconceptions about the disease as well as a lack of information are contributing to the elevated rate of cases.

“It’s definitely the poverty, and just plain denial across the board,” said Celeste Southard, Executive Director of Appetite for Life. “People think if they’re not gay, not poor and they don’t do drugs, they’re not going to get it, and so they just never test for it.”

Testing is critical because many people do not develop any symptoms when they first become infected with HIV. Some people may exhibit a flu-like illness within three to six weeks after exposure to the virus. This illness, known as Acute HIV Syndrome, may include fever, headache, tiredness, nausea, diarrhea and enlarged lymph nodes in the neck, armpits and groin.

These symptoms usually disappear within a week to a month and are often mistaken for the flu or some other virus. However, during this stage, the infected person is more likely to pass on the infection to others.

More persistent or severe symptoms may not surface for several years, even a decade or more, after HIV first enters the body in adults, or within two years in children born with the virus. This period of “asymptomatic” infection varies from individual to individual. Even though the person may be symptom free, the virus is actively multiplying, infecting, and killing cells of the immune system.

HIV usually does not lead to AIDS until the patient starts suffering from acute immunity problems. HIV testing will help an infected person identify the virus and, with the help of proper medication, he may delay the onset of AIDS, which is the final stage of HIV infection when the person cannot fight basic diseases that a normal person can easily combat.

Everyone who practices unsafe sex, has a pre-existing sexually-transmitted disease, or uses IV drugs is at high risk for contracting HIV/AIDS. Worldwide, more than 90 percent of all adolescent and adult HIV infections have resulted from heterosexual intercourse. Females are at as much risk as males. Unfortunately, too many people in the high-risk categories, especially those in the minority communities, don’t get tested until the HIV virus is too advanced.


A large percentage of the HIV/AIDS cases in Florida are African-Americans. According to the Florida Department of Health, Florida had reported in 2009 a total of 93,053 persons living with a diagnosis of HIV infection, about one in 202 Floridians. African-Americans accounted for 49 percent of that total, even though they only make up 16 percent of the state’s population. Fifty-four percent of the HIV/AIDS deaths in 2008 were African-Americans.

In Florida, one in 58 black males is known to be infected. In the Escambia County, that ratio is one in 44 black males and more than half of the adult AIDS and HIV cases are among blacks.

According to the FDOH’s report “HIV/AIDS Epidemic: Impact on Florida’s Black Community,” which was released last year, the underlying factors affecting HIV/AIDS disparities are:

-Pre-existing amount of HIV in the community;
-Late diagnosis of HIV or AIDS;
-Access to/acceptance of care;
-HIV/AIDS conspiracy beliefs;
-Stigma, discrimination;
-Delayed prevention messages to minorities (considered a gay, white male disease for a long time);
-Non-HIV STDs in the community;
-Complex matrix of factors related to socioeconomic status;
-Non-disclosure (closeting) of male-sex-with-male risk to female partners;
-Prevalence of injection drug use, other risky behaviors;

Add to those factors Escambia County’s poverty and high illiteracy rate and it isn’t difficult to understand the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the black community and the rest of the county.

Rev. Charles Morris, pastor of Bethel AME Church, has been preaching on HIV/AIDS awareness since 1998. “While the statistics about African-American males is alarming, the highest rates have been among African-American women from the ages of 25 to 44,” said Morris. According to FDOH, AIDS still is, in fact, the leading cause of death for black females, age 25-44.

“As with any disease, early detection is the key,” said Pastor Morris, “as well as public awareness. An informed community is the best way to stop this epidemic.”


Testing helps identify the HIV virus early, but what happens next? How can someone fight back? Proper medication and nutrition are the two most important factors in maintaining health when living with HIV/AIDS. Without one or the other, neither of the two works to their full capacity

Appetite for Life is a non-profit organization that provides high quality, nutritious meals to people living in Escambia County who are affected by or infected with HIV/AIDS. The organization also runs a food pantry, a nutritional supplement program and several other volunteer, need-based programs.

Although medication is sometimes provided through insurance or government assistance programs like the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP), many patients are simply too weak or sick to cook their own food, and therefore do not supply their body with the proper nutrients necessary for the medicine to be effective and work to its full capacity.


Appetite for Life served its first meal in 1997, and began providing three meals a day to the disabled and those living with a terminal illness. Today it is providing over 3,000 meals per month.

The food pantry and summer food service program were started soon after the first meals were delivered. The food pantry serves monthly 350 homeless. The summer food service program runs from June until the second week in August and targets children who receive free or reduced-priced meals and are dependent on the public school system for their meals during the school year. Appetite for Life provides these children two meals a day.

Escambia County is second in the state for the most reported cases of women and children living with AIDS.

“Some of these children have never eaten regular meals until they became a part of our program,” Southard said. “The poverty in this town is unreal.”

Her organization not only provides meals to those living with AIDS, but to their dependents as well, which means a mother living with AIDS has meals provided for her children. Some of the children on the home delivery routes are so excited to receive their meals, they are unable to hide their gratitude.

“Before I can even get out of the van, the kids are saying, ‘I love you Mr. Marcus,’ and are literally clinging to my leg,” said Marcus Ditty, Appetite for Life Operations and Development Director.

Appetite for Life provides its clients with lunch and dinner, seven days a week. Volunteers as well as the chef prepare the meals daily. Pot roast with mashed potatoes and gravy, chef salad, breads, and homemade cookies are among the items they serve.

“We had one of our clients call in and tell us how much she loved the chef salad we had made that day,” said Ditty. “It seems like such a simple thing to make but she said she just couldn’t stand up long enough to cut the lettuce.”


As Appetite for Life expanded its meal service to meet the rising number of HIV/AIDS cases and children living in poverty, funding became an issue. The non-profit does not receive any government funding and functions only on donations from individual parties, grants and fundraisers.

“We stepped back, got a commercial kitchen, and starting a catering gig,” Ditty said. “Catering became a way to bring income to the non-profit organization.”

Many local businesses order from Appetite for Life boxed lunches or party trays for meetings and office functions. The catering aspect has raised awareness of the cause, grown a larger client base, and generated income so the company can become self- sustaining in the event that other avenues of funding run out.

Aside from providing food to various groups within the community, Appetite for Life helps its clients stay connected with what’s going on in the community. Every day, alongside the lunches and dinners, a newspaper is delivered.

“A lot of these people are homebound, either due to their economic status or their condition, and this is literally the only connection they have to the outside world,” said Ditty, who currently drives two routes, three days a week.

“You do get to develop a relationship with the people on your route,” said Ditty. “However, when you develop that relationship, it’s scary, because there’s always a chance for death with a terminal illness.”

Ditty is one of nine drivers and 35-40 regular volunteers who do everything from food packaging to data entry. “It’s very dynamic—we have people who do everything,” he said. “Our organization could not exist without our volunteers.”

These volunteers and staff members offer a support system to clients without family or friends. Those who do have family and friends may not have made them aware of their situation.

“AIDS is a difficult disease to deal with, even with a full support system, much less alone like some of our clients,” said Ditty. “One of the clients we deliver to lives with her family, and they don’t know about her condition. They think she just receives the meals because she’s part of a ‘Meals on Wheels’ type program.”


Obtaining the proper medication in addition to sustaining a diet of proper nutrition has gotten significantly harder in the past six months. The federally-funded ADAP has been assisting people in receiving the complex antiretroviral medications being used to treat AIDS.

“There are now 2,300 people on the waiting list,” Ditty said. “ADAP never had a waiting list before June 1, 2010.”

ADAP provides medication to 166,000 people living with AIDS. ADAP is funded by federal and state money, but because of the recent economic downtown, many states are unable to donate as much as they were before.

“There has been a bigger demand for the medication,” said Dr. John Lanza, Director of the Escambia County Health Department. “The economic downtown, the lost jobs, the lost insurance—the waiting lists are now growing quite long.”

In order for ADAP to continue serving in 2011 and reach all of the people currently on the waiting list, it would need an estimated $370 million budget increase.

ADAP provides medication to most people who would otherwise never be able to afford it. Without insurance, a month of medication costs about $2,500.

Even if the medicine and proper nutrition are obtained, intense side effects can still occur.

“It’s a cocktail of drugs that you have to take,” Ditty said. “People think there’s a cure now but there’s not.”

HIV/AIDS medication has progressed significantly in the past 10-15 years, and the disease is no longer the immediate death sentence it once was. However, the side effects can range from mild to severe.

“If you’re over 55, the medications don’t work as well,” Southard said. “If you aren’t receiving the proper nutrition, they don’t work as well.”

Some of the moderate effects include dizziness, migraines and nausea, while the severe can include hepatitis, insomnia, jaundice and anemia.

Medication has also been made available that can prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS from mother to child. However, it is not mandatory to test pregnant women for HIV/AIDS. The woman must request the test from her doctor. Many women don’t know that, or think that HIV/AIDS would show up in another test and so they don’t request a separate test, resulting in the transmission to the baby.


All the stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding AIDS leads people to believe that they can’t or won’t contract it. The best way to overcome this is to continually educate the public and testing. Test early and test often.

Escambia County has consistently been ranked 12th or 13th out of the 67 counties in Florida for having the most reported AIDS cases. “We do a lot of testing in Escambia County,” Dr. Lanza said. “If you don’t look for it, you won’t find it.”

And if you don’t find it, you can’t report it or prevent it. There are over 15 different testing sites in Escambia County that provide free HIV/AIDS testing.

“Education is the solution to a lot of problems we have, community or otherwise,” Dr. Lanza said. “We need to educate everyone, from grade school on up, and make sure that everyone knows how you contract this.”


AIDS Healthcare Foundation
Madison Park, 4300 Bayou Blvd., Suite 33
Testing Hours: Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Closed for lunch: 12-1 p.m.
By Walk-in or Appointment

Allen Chapel AME Church
500 Guillemard St.
Testing Hours: Wednesday 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Appointment Only
Third Saturday of Month: 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Walk-ins welcomed

Appetite for Life
402 W. Cervantes St.
Testing Hours: Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
By Walk-in or Appointment

Baptist Charities Social Services
1700 Fireman Drive (off Avery Street)
Appointment only

Community Information Network (CIN)
920 W. Government St.
Testing Hours: Monday-Friday 9:30 a.m.-12 p.m. and 1:30-5:30 p.m.
Appointment only

Equality House
317 N. Spring St.
Testing Hours: Wednesday-Saturday 5:30-8 p.m.
By Walk-in or Appointment

Escambia County Health Department
1295 W. Fairfield Drive
Testing Hours: Monday-Thursday 7:45 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. and Friday 7:45 a.m. only
Walk-Ins welcomed, first 12 will be seen. Call for fee.
HIV Night Clinic
First Tuesday of the month 5-7 p.m.
Appointment only

Escambia County Health Department Molino Branch Office
3470 Hwy. 29 North, Cantonment
First Thursday of month only
Testing Hours: 8 a.m.-4 p.m.
Appointment only. Call for Fee

Glory to God Ministry-North
730 E. Johnson Ave.
Testing Hours: Tuesday 6-7:15 p.m.
Saturday Appointment only 5-7 p.m.
By Walk-in or Appointment

Glory to God Ministry-Ninth Avenue
8800 N. Ninth Ave.
Testing Hours: First Saturday of month 10 a.m.-12 p.m.
By Walk-in or Appointment

HIV Care Center (Sacred Heart Hospital)
5153 N. Ninth Ave., Suite 305
Testing Hours: Monday-Thursday 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Closed for lunch: 12-1 p.m.

MD Housecall, Inc.
841 W. Mallory St.
Testing Hours: Monday-Wednesday and Friday 9 a.m.-12 p.m., 2-5 p.m.
Walk-ins welcome

New World Believers
3025 N. Q St.
Testing Hours: Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Walk-ins welcome

Okaloosa AIDS Support & Information Services, Inc. (OASIS)
1331 Creighton Road
Testing Hours: Wednesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Please call before arrival.

SHAPE Program
6425 N. Pensacola Blvd., Bldg.1, Suite 5
Testing Hours: Monday-Thursday 8 a.m.-4 p.m.
Appointment only

West Pensacola Outreach Center
4000 W. Fairfield Drive
Testing Hours: Fourth Tuesday of month only 4:30-6:30 p.m.
Walk-ins welcome

Escambia County ranked 12th out of 67 counties in Florida for most reported AIDS cases as of November 2010.
Escambia County ranked 2nd in the state for most reported cases of women and children
One out of 44 black men living in Escambia County is HIV positive
25 percent of all new AIDS cases in Escambia County were in people 25 years old and younger
Since 1981, 118,000 AIDS cases have been reported in Florida. 1,549 of them occurred in children who were under the age of 13.

In 2009, 5,608 cases were reported with HIV in Florida
Of the adult cases, 74 percent were males
48 percent were black, 30 percent white and 21 percent Hispanic
41 percent were among children under age 13

In 2009, 4,429 AIDS cases were diagnosed in Florida:
Of the adult cases, 67 percent were males
53 percent were black, 26 percent white and 19 percent Hispanic
3 percent were among children under age 13

Cumulatively through December 2009, 118,283 AIDS cases have been reported in Florida, of which 1,540 were under age 13.

In 2009, there were 395,299 HIV tests performed by county public health departments, with 5,205 (1.3 percent) of the tests being positive.

An estimated 125,000 persons, or roughly 11.7 percent of the national estimate of 1,185,000 are currently thought to be HIV-infected in Florida.

The Home Delivered Meal Program has served over 131 different clients and distributed thousands of meals.
The Food Pantry Program currently feeds 257 people, including dependent children.
56 Fund is an Appetite for Life program that provides dependent children with Christmas presents. Last year, 71 children were given gifts.
Appetite for Life provides hurricane kits to its clients in the event of a disaster. The kits contain enough food for four days.
Appetite for Life has two full-time employees, two part-time employees and 35-40 volunteers.

For information about how to donate or volunteer for A4L, please visit or call 554-8613.