On Wed., Feb. 7, 2018, students poured into the Alfred Lawson Jr. Multipurpose Center Teaching Gymnasium to hear from professionals on the subject of HIV/AIDS.
Dr. Maria Okeke, a professor in the Department of Health and Physical Education, and Director of Health Services Tanya Tatum have served as the program coordinators of this event for 20 years.
"Since the initiation of this insidious disease, it has been draining our society. We are still disproportionately affected," said Okeke. "I realize this conference room should have been filled, but even if we only have one student and can serve that one student, our goal is accomplished."
Despite the progress, the African American community has seen decreases in the number of individuals affected by HIV/AIDS and the increase in resources, there is still much work to be done.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2016 African Americans accounted for 44 percent of HIV diagnoses. Yet, this statistic can be quite shocking when according to the United States Census Bureau, African Americans make up 13.5 percent of the U.S. population.
A statistic that may hit a little closer to home is the 14,740 cases of individuals in the U.S. ages 20-29 that were diagnosed with HIV in 2016. Also, statistics show the contribution of HIV and AIDS is not evenly distributed geographically. In 2016, the South accounted for 16.8 percent of all HIV/AIDS cases, which was the highest out of all other regions.
As a prevention method, students are encouraged to research Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) and Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP), two medications that will be accessible in every Florida county for free by the end of 2018. PrEP can be used for patients who are at high risk for acquiring HIV and PEP for individuals who are HIV negative but have recently been exposed to the virus.
Sheila Morris has been working with Okeke and Tatum since December of last year to successfully execute this beneficial event for the Florida A&M student body. With experience as a representative for the Leon County Health Department, Bond Community Health Center, Inc. and as a FAMU health sciences professor, Morris is no stranger to educating the community about this issue.
"Education is key; knowledge is power. We want people to get tested, become educated, become a community activist and learn more about PEP and PrEP, but remember these are not substitutes for not utilizing a condom."
Jazzmyne Stephenson, a senior interdisciplinary studies major, has been tested several times throughout her college career and values raising awareness across FAMU's campus. Stephenson wants her peers to view getting tested as more of an opportunity than a burden.
"It's our job to hold each other accountable, and if we have it in our power to do something, we should do it," said Stephenson. "Take a friend with you to get tested, make it into a fun event. More importantly, if you're afraid to get tested, be more afraid to have unprotected sex."
Brian King, a junior health, leisure and fitness studies major with a minor in business, was also one of those students listening attentively to the panelists as they shared valuable tips and prevention methods.
"I am in the young adult stage where a lot of these diseases are just now coming to my attention, and it was great to get information about the HIV/AIDS and other STDs and how we can prevent and detect each one."
King commented that he has noticed a significant difference when it comes to discussing the issue with his friends in comparison to his high school years when the subject was considered seemingly taboo.
"I notice a lot of my friends speaking on the issue more openly in comparison to when I was younger when people really didn't talk about it," said King. "Honestly, I did not make getting tested a priority in the past, but now I know I should start."
African American women are 18 times more likely to contract HIV in comparison to Caucasian women, and African American men are four-and-a-half times more likely to contract HIV in comparison to their Caucasian counterpart.
King has a major takeaway to share with students who are still uncomfortable with the subject, "It's not about being cool. It's about protecting yourself, so that's the first step. We have to remember you don't really need to care what other people think,” said King. Make sure you're okay and surround yourself with good people who support you."
The College of Education, Department of Health, Department of Physical Education and Recreation, FAMU Student Health Services, National Health Equity Alliance and Leon County Health Department were all sponsors of the event.
Visit https://gettested.cdc.gov or https://www.hiv.gov for resources on HIV/AIDS to find out how you can get tested at a location near you.