MANATEE -- In Manatee County there are at least 883 people living with HIV. In efforts to prevent that number from increasing, the Manatee County Health Department is hosting "Fiesta de Salud" on Saturday at Bradenton's Pride Park -- a health fair directed toward one of the most affected groups, Latinos.
"Knowledge is control and power," said Robert Merlosi, manager of Manatee County Health Department's HIV and STD Prevention Program. "If they know they have something they can fix that problem."
Fair-goers will be presented with a wide range of pamphlets and information in both English and Spanish about AIDS, HIV and other medical conditions, Merlosi said. Free screenings for diabetes, blood pressure, HIV, pregnancy and other conditions will also be available. Those who get health screenings do not need to have medical insurance, he said.
"There is a lot of stigma, they don't want to do something because of legal status, but we don't care about that. If you don't have ID we don't stop from testing," Merlosi said. "We let them know we have nothing to do with the police or immigration, we are just trying to bring the word out that they need to be tested."
The health fair coincides with Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, he said.
Oct. 15 is National Latino AIDS Awareness Day, but the county is hosting the fair on Saturday in order to attract more people, said Melrosi.
"One of the great things about raising awareness is that we hope we can get people to change at risk behavior," said Dr. Joyce Dent-Good, chief executive officer of Minority HIV/AIDS Social Service, Inc. "We notice that within drug induced status people don't always make the right decisions ... that a lot of people tend to be at risk because of multiple partners."
Increasing communication among partners about their sexual history is also crucial in prevention, she said.
Individuals who identify as Hispanic or Latino account for 16 percent of the U.S. population and represented 20 percent of the new HIV infections in 2009, according to the most recent data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC notes that high rates of HIV for Hispanics and Latinos is partly linked to lower awareness of the virus, poverty and access to care.
"Here in Manatee a lot of them cannot even read," Melrosi said about migrant workers in the county. "The only information they get is from commercials or what people say. We want to explain to them what it is, a lot of people don't like to go to clinics so coming to these events is like a festival."
House of Restoration Salem will have about 20 volunteers helping out at the fair, said Carmelo Maldonado, administrator for the Christian church.
"As a church, that's our mission, to try and help in any way we can ... to help the needy, the sick, those who need prayer," Maldonado said. "If we don't raise awareness and let them know that there are solutions, methods to prevent the crisis than unfortunately it will continue."
The church will also be donating food and providing music at the fair, he said.
There will be 25 to 30 vendors at the fair, including games and face painting for children, said Merlosi.
The event will go on from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Pride Park, 815 63rd Ave. E., Bradenton.