The tragedy of AIDS, says Susan Alt, director of HIV services for the Coastal Health District, is it continues to spread here and worldwide even though it can be prevented.
“What disturbs me most is seeing so many young people come through our clinic doors,” Alt said.
The rate of new infections in coastal Georgia is the highest in the state outside metro-Atlanta, district spokeswoman Sally Silbermann said.
“Georgia is only surpassed by New York, California, Florida, Texas, and New Jersey for the cumulative total number of AIDS cases since the start of the epidemic in the early 1980s,” she said.
The district encompasses Liberty, Long, Bryan, Chatham, Effingham, Glynn, McIntosh and Camden counties. The district sees an average of 200 new cases of HIV each year, Alt said. She stressed there is a reporting delay. Therefore the actual number of new cases may be higher than what is reported.
UNAIDS, the joint UN program on HIV/AIDS, reported 33.3 million people worldwide have HIV and AIDS. About 70 percent of those are in Africa. And although UNAIDS recently reported a 20 percent decline in new infections globally and a 25 percent decrease of new HIV infections in Africa, there’s more work to do.
In a renewed effort to educate the public and create opportunities for HIV testing, as well as remember the people who have died from AIDS, area health and civic organizations will observe World AIDS Day on Dec. 1.
Candlelight vigils will be held on Dec. 1 at 5:30 p.m. in Savannah’s Forsyth Park and at 7 p.m. at Abyssinia Baptist Church at 2501 Albany Street in Brunswick. The theme for these events is “Stop AIDS – Keep the promise.”
In addition, Savannah State University will conduct HIV testing on Dec. 1 at the school’s student center for World AIDS Day, Alt said. Armstrong Atlantic State University’s Health Center Services routinely offers HIV and STD testing for students, according to www.armstrong.edu. Alt said AASU will provide HIV testing for students on Dec. 2 as well, in observance of World AIDS Day.
Continuing education and outreach of services helps save lives, Alt said. She pointed to UNAIDS findings that more widespread use of condoms and easier access to anti-viral drugs have helped ease the spread of AIDS in Africa. These methods can work here as well, she said.
The district held a town hall meeting last week to address the high rate of HIV on the coast, particularly among gay and bisexual men in coastal Georgia.
“We had a decent turnout,” Alt said, saying the panel discussed ways officials may better serve the gay and bisexual community.
“One of the things we talked about was easier availability of testing,” she said. The district might provide HIV testing late at night, “when they (gay and bisexual men) are out of the clubs,” she said.
Outreach to gay and bisexual men living in rural areas is also made more difficult because of the stigma and discrimination they face, Alt said.
“They feel so isolated,” she said. “Isolation is a big risk factor. When they finally do find someone they may practice unsafe sex.”
Another population in the district at greater risk for HIV/AIDS is African American women, Alt said.
“What I see a lot in women is they didn’t think they were at risk,” she said. “Then they find out their partner has been diagnosed and that’s when they get tested. It’s a sad situation — you think you’re taking care of yourself and your partner puts you at risk.”
There were 215 new cases of HIV infection reported in the district in 2007, 215 in 2008 and 114 new cases thus far in 2009, Alt said.
“We’ve seen flat funding here yet the demand for care has risen. We have more patients every year,” she said.
“As of the end of October, nearly 700 people are on a waiting list for life-saving medications due to a lack of funding for Georgia’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program,” said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, in a press release. “This program is funded through both state and federal dollars and provides access to over 60 life-saving HIV-related medications for low- and moderate-income individuals who lack private insurance and who do not qualify for Medicaid.”
Alt said the district can access medications through other resources, such as the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program. Ryan White became an advocate for anti-AIDS discrimination. A hemophiliac, White was diagnosed with AIDS at age 13.
For more information, visit www.gachd.org or call the Liberty CARE Center at 876-5085.