Emmanuel Mendez has a message.
He is an HIV testing counselor and he urges everyone who may have had unprotected sex, shared needles with someone, and is a spouse of someone who may have used needles and/or had unprotected sex sometime in their life, to get tested.
Mendez, who was recently in Lehigh, and two volunteers set up a table on the lot of Lehigh Community Services during the giant food giveaway by the Harry Chapin Food Bank, with a sign that read: HIV/AIDs testing available free.
Several people stopped by the table to pick up literature and many asked to be tested, a practice that Mendez says is free and it is confidential.
He pricks a person's finger and does a squab in the mouth and that's it. He can come up with results on the spots and if there is a positive reading, Mendez will talk to the person and help them to find a physician who can help them.
"HIV and AIDS testers are employed by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation at 2231 McGregor Blvd. in Fort Myers and Mendez and volunteers from his office travel to different areas of Lee County and set up a table and urge people to get tested.
"People may become upset if they find out they have the HIV virus, but we tell them that it is not a killer anymore. There are medications today that will go a long way to help prevent the disease from getting worse and those with HIV and/or AIDS can live longer lives.
"Folks are concerned about the cost of medications for AIDS today and they have all heard how expensive they can be. But we will help them. There are ways through grants and other means to find ways to pay for several drugs that it may take for the individual.
"Many, if not most of our clients are women. We also have a lot of clients who are older men. We are not judges. We are there to help anyone who may have some reason to wonder if they came in contact with the virus.
In addition to coming to Lehigh events - and Mendez urges local organizations to contact him when there are such events - he will do his best to schedule a time to come and offer the free testing.
With him in this latest visit during an event were volunteers Kevin Quinn and Jamal Bailey. They are more than glad to talk to anyone who stops by their booth and again, everything is confidential, Mendez said.
"There are 70,000 people in Florida who are HIV positive and do not know it," Mendez said. There are 67 counties, many with larger populations than others.
"We know there are a great number of people in Lee County who may have the virus and not know it. It is better to find out now and medical treatment can begin immediately and the chances for a person with the disease has a greater likelihood living a normal life in the future after being treated by a physician.
Mendez said the program is a cutting-edge medicine and advocacy group and one that helps regardless of a person's ability to pay.
"Forty percent of those we test are positive and are completely unaware that they have a problem," Mendez said.
Not only do he and his volunteers attend events in Lehigh and other sites in Lee County, Mendez comes to Lehigh on a regular basis monthly and sets up his testing equipment in a private closed off room at the Lehigh Community Services, at 201 Plaza Drive.
For dates and times, call them and they will tell you when he will on hand.
Mendez offers advice for people who may be unaware of the fact that HIV which causes AIDS is spreading even today and among teenagers and women and those who share contaminated needles and those who practice unprotected sex.
The group advocates the use of condoms and urges people to educate themselves. Unprotected sex such as oral sex can cause the virus to spread, he said. Condoms should be used in all sexual activity, he said.
"We're just hoping that the more people who are tested, the more we will be able to find those who need treatment and don't realize it," Mendez said.
Sometimes his girlfriend accompanies him on trips to the different areas of Lee County to help with the testing. And he says the group is always looking for volunteers to help out. They will be trained to give out correct information when talking to the public.
"And again, I want to emphasize to everyone that this is absolutely confidential. Testing is done in private as is counseling. It is our hope that those who know we are testing will talk to their peer groups and urge them to take up the offer of free testing, too.
"You can get test kits in the stores, but they are expensive. With us there is no charge ever," he said.
"We see people of both sexes who are straight and gay and quite often HIV will show up. HIV causes AIDS after exposure.
"We can't stress it more than to urge people who may have experienced lifestyles that include unprotected sex to be associated with those who use illegal drugs who often share needles, to get tested. Today help is available," Mendez said.
"Also, the social stigma of alternative sexual lifestyles is more accepted so it is good that people in different groups can talk to their friends and peers and urge them to get tested," he said.
If people want to be tested at the Fort Myers office at 2231 McGregor Blvd. in Fort Myers, they should call Mendez at 239-337-2391, Extension 220. He also said people can call him directly on his cell phone at 239-478-3056.
How is HIV treated?
HIV treatment may reduce the amount of HIV in your blood (called "viral load"). Treatment may also help to increase the number of CD4 cells in your blood which help fight off other infections.
AIDS is the late stage of HIV infection, when a person's immune system is severely damaged and has difficulty fighting diseases and certain cancers. Before the development of certain medications, people with HIV could progress to AIDS in just a few years. Currently, people can live much longer - even decades - with HIV before they develop AIDS. This is because of "highly active" combinations of medications that were introduced in the mid- 1990s.