JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jacksonville area ranks in the top 10 of American communities for new HIV cases, according to a new study.
The study ranked the Jacksonville Metropolitan area ninth in the country for newly diagnosed HIV cases between 2011 and 2015.
In 2014, 6,553 people in the Jacksonville area were living with diagnosed HIV. In 2015, 309 more people were diagnosed.
The ZIP code 32206, including Springfield, Talleyrand and Brentwood, has the highest rate of HIV diagnoses in the Jacksonville area.
That's why local organizations like Lutheran Social Services and UF Cares offer free testing at events like one held Friday on the Northside.
The process is simple. First, find a testing center. Most places will prick your finger and in just 15 minutes, you can learn your status.
To find a testing center nearby, go to https://knowyourhivstatus.com and type in a ZIP code for a list of local testing centers. Some offer free testing.
About one in 10 people who are HIV positive don't know it.
Justin Bell said he was diagnosed with HIV 10 years ago from a medical transmission.
"My diagnosis was a late diagnosis,” he said. "I figured, this was pretty bad. I was preparing at that time for my death."
He hopes his story will encourage others to get tested.
"Love, hope and modern medicine has me here today,” Bell said.
Bell said things like stigma and fear often keep people from getting tested.
"They didn't get tested because one: What would my family think? Two: If I showed that I was HIV positive, am I going to be able to date again? Those are conversations we need to be having,” Bell said.
HIV does not discriminate. The disease spreads mostly through unprotected sex and IV drug use, which has been on the rise.
"If everyone knows their status, they're less likely to spread this disease to someone else and our numbers in Jacksonville decrease,” said Heather Vaughan, director of human services for Lutheran Social Services.
Bell said he wants everyone to know that LSS and other resources are available with treatment options and support for those diagnosed with HIV.