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HIV prevention conference to spotlight research
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Every year, it seems there’s a new disease people are worried about: West Nile virus, SARS, bird flu, MRSA. For anyone who wasn’t around in the 1980s, AIDS may seem like ancient history.

But AIDS is still going strong. Despite drugs that can help suppress HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, the infection is still incurable. And it’s spreading.

To remind people that the disease remains a threat, in 1988 the World Health Organization designated Dec. 1 as World AIDS Day. Awareness events are planned this weekend all across the globe.

This year, Georgia will be under particular scrutiny, because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is sponsoring the 2007 National HIV Prevention Conference in Atlanta, beginning Sunday and running through Wednesday.

CDC spokeswoman Nikki Kay said more than 3,000 public health officials, medical professionals, and AIDS advocates are expected to attend the conference. More than 400 scientific papers will be presented, assessing the effectiveness of HIV prevention policies and programs, with a focus on high-risk populations.

"We’re anxious to see what current research comes out of the conference," said Greg Bautista, outreach manager for AID Gwinnett in Duluth. "Word is that the CDC is going to announce HIV infection rates are higher than previously thought."

It’s not easy to get accurate numbers on HIV/AIDS because in recent years, most of the new cases have been occurring in minority or low-income populations that are notoriously difficult to assess.

Right now, the most recent official data available are from December 2005, when the CDC reported 2,333 new HIV/AIDS cases in Georgia, ranking the state fifth-highest nationwide.

But the raw data aren’t as alarming as the demographic trends. "Georgia has increasing numbers of heterosexuals, especially women, being infected," said Melanie Sovine, executive director of the Atlanta-based AIDS Survival Project, which serves all of Georgia. "We also have a disproportionate number of cases among African-Americans."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 30 percent of Georgia residents in 2005 were black. But 74 percent of Georgia’s new AIDS cases were among blacks, compared to 48 percent nationwide.

To draw attention to this racial disparity, AID Gwinnett will offer a free screening Saturday of a new documentary, "The AIDS Chronicles: Here to Represent," at Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Norcross.

Bautista said filmmaker Bailey Barash spent four years interviewing African-American AIDS patients and their families in metro Atlanta.

"I’ve seen the documentary. It’s very moving," Bautista said. "Our goal is to continue showing the film in free settings such as churches throughout Atlanta. We’re trying to emphasize the urgency of prevention."

At District 2 Public Health in Gainesville, infectious disease coordinator Janie Dalton said they did not have the resources to do any outreach projects for World AIDS Day this year.

"But all of our health departments (in 13 Northeast Georgia counties) are putting up big posters with information about prevention and testing, and also about our Ryan White clinic (for AIDS treatment) at the Hall County Health Department," she said.

Unlike some areas of the state, reported rates of HIV infection have not increased in the Northeast Georgia mountains. District 2 spokesman Dave Palmer said in 2006 there were 14 new cases of HIV and 5 new cases of full-blown AIDS, compared to 15 HIV and 14 AIDS in 2005.

But the low numbers don’t necessarily reflect a successful prevention program. "There’s no way to know how many people are infected and don’t realize it because they’ve never gone to get tested," Palmer said.

Confidential HIV testing is available on request at all local health departments, at the North Georgia AIDS Alliance, and at the Gainesville Care Center.

But for a variety of reasons, many people simply won’t drive to a clinic to be tested. So Bautista takes a different approach. He offers on-site testing at events where high-risk people are likely to congregate, such as Atlanta’s annual Gay Pride festival.

"The good news is that the number of people getting tested increases each year," he said. "But a lot more prevention awareness is needed. There’s more to it than just having access to condoms and knowing how to use them."

Bautista said in minority communities, there’s a relationship between HIV disease and socioeconomic status.

"Poverty, lack of education, lack of self-worth, drug abuse, and cultural beliefs are all factors that contribute to the continuing high infection rate," he said. "These are symptoms of a larger problem that can’t be addressed with a brochure."

Sovine said the incidence of AIDS is increasing faster in the Southeast than in any other area of the country, yet the stigma against people with HIV tends to be higher here than elsewhere.

Saturday, the AIDS Survival Project is holding a "Call to Action" fund-raiser at Emory University that looks at the consequences of discrimination and stigma. Martin Downing, spokesman for the organization, said they’re trying to address three different types of stigma.

"There’s self-stigma, where people hide their own illness because they’re ashamed," he said. "There’s social stigma, where people don’t want to work with or socialize with people who have AIDS. And there’s legislative stigma, where bills get passed or don’t get passed because of discrimination."

Speakers at "Call to Action" will include state Rep. Kathy Ashe (R-Atlanta) and Harvard Law School professor Robert Greenwald, who wrote a piece of federal legislation known as the Early Treatment for HIV Act, or ETHA.

"ETHA was first introduced (in Congress) about 11 years ago, and we still haven’t been able to get it passed," Sovine said.

She said the law would allow states to change their Medicaid programs to create a new eligibility category.

"Low-income people would be able to qualify when they are diagnosed HIV-positive," she said. "Currently, you are not eligible until you have full-blown AIDS and are disabled."

The existing law prevents some HIV-positive patients from getting treatments that could slow down their progression to AIDS. Sovine is still hopeful that Congress will pass ETHA, and she points to a legal precedent.

"With breast and cervical cancer, women previously weren’t eligible for coverage until they were in Stage 4 of the disease (when it’s usually incurable)," she said. "Now they’re able to get treatment earlier."

Downing said it makes economic sense to treat patients before their disease becomes serious, but he believes legislators view HIV differently than cancer or other illnesses.

"The issue is uncomfortable for a lot of people because of the avenues of transmission of HIV/AIDS (through sexual contact or drug use)," he said.

"But there is nothing to be ashamed of. A disease is a disease. And you may not think you know someone with HIV, but you probably do."