0623AIDSaudDonald Slakie, HIV health educator for District 2 Public Health, talks about the importance of getting tested.
More than 1 million Americans are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. But an estimated 25 percent of them don’t know it.
That’s a number that scares Donald Slakie, HIV health educator for District 2 Public Health in Gainesville. And there’s another statistic that concerns him.
"Georgia has the fifth-highest rate of HIV in the nation," he said. "If we can get people tested, we can stop the spread (of the disease) as well as get people into early treatment."
Friday is National HIV Testing Day, and all 13 health departments in District 2’s Northeast Georgia region will be offering free testing.
Hours of testing vary, so residents should call their local health department to find out when they can come in.
At the Hall County Health Department, testing has been stretched across the entire week, with appointments available every day except Wednesday.
"We expanded the hours this year and spread it out over several days to make it more convenient for people," said District 2 spokesman Dave Palmer.
Alan Satterfield, nurse manager of the Hall County Health Department, added that when people come in for HIV testing, they’ll be redirected from the reception area to a more private section of the building.
These changes were made in response to complaints last year, when some people said they came to the Hall department on National HIV Testing Day and were turned away.
Slakie said the last thing he wants to do is discourage anyone from getting tested.
"(HIV) continues to rise at almost epidemic rates in the African-American and Hispanic populations," he said. "But there’s a lot of complacency about it. There’s also a lot of stigma associated with being tested, especially in small rural areas. Many people will cross counties and go to another health department (to avoid being recognized)."
Amy Greene, a nurse with the Hall health department’s sexually transmitted diseases program, said testing for HIV and other STDs is always available upon request.
The oral versions of the test, in which the gums are swabbed to collect a sample of saliva, are free because they’re subsidized by a state program, Greene said. The blood test for HIV ordinarily costs $25.
Slakie said patients who come in to be tested receive counseling both before and after the procedure. If they test negative, they are told about ways to prevent infection in the future.
"If there’s a positive test, an appointment would be made for further evaluation," he said.
About 200 HIV and AIDS patients from Northeast Georgia are currently receiving services from District 2’s Ryan White Clinic in Gainesville. But that doesn’t necessarily reflect the total number of people who are HIV-positive.
"There are income requirements for Ryan White," said Greene. "You’re not eligible if you have private insurance."
The good news is that if you are diagnosed with HIV, it’s possible to live an almost normal life. "New treatments have reduced the number of pills patients have to take," said Slakie.
But too many AIDS cases still go untreated. Though the disease doesn’t get much publicity these days, it hasn’t gone away.
"There’s still a significant number of people in the U.S. who die of AIDS-related illnesses," said Slakie. "The number is not going down."
And the people who are getting infected don’t always fit the stereotypes.
"This is a nondiscriminatory disease. It affects everyone," said Slakie. "There’s also been an increase in the rate of HIV in people aged 50 and above. People are at risk when they divorce or they lose their partner, and they’re no longer in a monogamous relationship."
He said the biggest jump in HIV cases has been among minority women. But fortunately, women of child-bearing age have a much better chance of getting tested than people in any other demographic.
"In Georgia, we have an ‘opt out’ program, where all pregnant women are automatically tested for HIV unless they request otherwise," said Slakie.
The challenge now is to persuade people in other demographic groups to get tested.
"The (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has recommended that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 be routinely tested, but that has not been made mandatory," Slakie said.