JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -

Recently, a national publication called Rolling Out ranked Jacksonville as having the third-highest HIV/AIDS rates in the country, behind only Miami and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The rankings, which were based on numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Census Bureau, have many people worried that things aren't getting any better.

Experts say Jacksonville has always been high on the list for HIV/AIDS. Thousands of people in the city are living with the disease — including area resident Justin Bell.

Bell (pictured below) was diagnosed seven years ago, infected during a medical procedure, and he now takes 23 pills a day. But he's coping — and he doesn't hide his diagnosis.

“I'm here because of the miracles of modern medicine. That's why I'm here,” Bell said. “If my diagnosis had been in 1997, I likely would not be here speaking with you today.”

Bell wasn't surprised to hear where Jacksonville ranks on a RollingOut.com list of cities with the highest new infection rates.

According to Health Department records:

  • 2,574 people are living with HIV in Duval County
  • 3,348 are living with AIDS
  • Men account for 76 percent of new infections
  • 35 percent of cases came from heterosexual contact

“I think a problem that we have in Jacksonville is that there's not the awareness that there is in other cities,” said Audrey Gardner, program director for the Northeast Florida AIDS Network. “It's not something that people want to, or like to, talk about. It kind of gets brushed under the rug.”

The Northeast Florida AIDS Network is a nonprofit organization that helps people living with the disease.

Leaders with the group said poverty is one of the main reasons why the rate is so high in Jacksonville. They also said there is a lack of medical care and funding, and student education isn't where it should be. But the No. 1 problem, they say, is the stigma of the disease, which means nobody wants to talk about the issues.

“I think that there's still a long way to go with discrimination for people who are living with it,” Gardner said.

Bell is working to break the silence and trying to lower the numbers, but he said everyone must band together to make things better.

“If we're not getting the members from our community to come and test and to eradicate that stigma, the fear, then we're still going to be No. 3 in 10 years,” Bell said.

Every year, Jacksonville holds an AIDS awareness day. The city also helps fund a number of programs through doctors' offices and the health department that offer testing, treatment and medication, so experts say the resources are out there.

They say everyone should get a free test once a year, regardless of who they are or where they come from, because spotting the infection early is the key to keeping it from spreading.

For more information on HIV/AIDS services, go to:

  • Duval County Health Department Services: dchd.net
  • Northeast Florida AIDS Network programs: nfanjax.org
  • University of Florida Center for HIV/AIDS Research, Education and Service (UF CARES): hscj.ufl.edu