In honor of World AIDS Day, the North Georgia AIDS Alliance will open from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. today and offer free, confidential HIV testing. Appointments and walk-ins are welcome. The center is located at 615 Oak St., Suite D, in Gainesville. For more information call 770-297-3175.
More than 25 years ago, when AIDS became a disease on the radar of mainstream America, most people tried to relegate the condition to one segment of the population.
Today, that is no longer the case — or at least it shouldn’t be, officials say.
"HIV/AIDS does not discriminate. It is very much an equal opportunity infection," said Angel Randolph, executive director of the North Georgia AIDS Alliance.
"It is not a gay disease. It amazes me that people still try to put that spin on it."
In honor of World AIDS Day, which is today, the local alliance and organizations nationwide are working to increase awareness of the global impact of HIV and AIDS.
In addition to offering free, weekly HIV testing, the alliance also offers community outreach and support groups for individuals living with the diseases.
According to the United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS, more than 33 million people worldwide are living with HIV — 2.5 million of those are children. In Georgia, there are around 18,000 confirmed cases of individuals living with AIDS, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
"In general, the trends in Hall County (and the surrounding area) mirror the trends statewide and nationally," said Randolph.
In the 13-county Public Health District 2 area, which includes Hall, Banks and White counties, there are a reported 168 HIV and 236 AIDS cases, public health officials said.
The Georgia Department of Human Resources reports that HIV and AIDS are affecting "African-Americans, women, heterosexuals and people living in rural areas at growing rates."
"I encourage people to get tested and find out their status," said Randolph. "There are a lot of infected people who don’t know their status and they are continuing to spread the disease to others. The CDC recommends that people make HIV/AIDS screenings a part of their regular health screenings. If you are sexually active, you should definitely be tested once a year."
Testing for the diseases should not be used as a method for preventing HIV and AIDS, Randolph said.
"I have people who say they are being tested every six months, but I tell them they shouldn’t use the test as a preventative method," she said. "They should really be evaluating the behaviors they are engaging that makes them think they should be tested (so often)."
Eradicating the myths surrounding the diseases can also go a long way in reducing new cases, she said.
"People need to find out the facts — you can’t get it from hugging, or hanging out with someone who has the disease. You acquire HIV/AIDS by birth or from behaviors — it’s as simple as that," said Randolph.
"We need to stamp out the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. The stigma surrounding it leads to people being quiet about it, which leads to the spread of the disease."