"We are just excited about being funded again by the [Georgia] Department of Community Health to do the prevention work, and [we are] excited in particular because we are being funded to target the African-American community, males and females, in an outreach-type capacity that is new," said Lola Thomas, executive director for the AIDS Alliance, which serves about 110 HIV/AIDS clients, ranging in age from 13 to 70, in 10 northwest Georgia counties. "So we are looking forward to getting out, meeting people, being more actively involved in street outreach and reaching what is referred to as 'the hard-to-reach populations.'
"With [our organization] being funded for a street outreach program, we are able to do that. Whereas in other programs you may have to have classes or things such as that, this is more of a one-on-one type of approach. In recent studies, it's shown to be more effective. So we're just very excited about the new type of prevention that we will be doing in the community. ... Basically we'll be looking for locations, where people congregate and sometimes that's in outlying areas, even a local 7-Eleven type store [or] gas station, places where people in a sense hang out. These are the places this program encourages you to go, so that you can talk to regular folks who might not otherwise be reached with preventive messages. And what our job is, is to provide prevention education to people in these types of situations."
Along with passing out literature and items at various locations, AIDS Alliance staff will be conducting HIV tests on-site, if individuals desire. Discouraged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics that blacks make up less than 15 percent of the U.S. population, but comprise about half of the individuals living with HIV, Annie Carter -- director of HIV Testing and Preventive Services for the AIDS Alliance -- is hopeful that the street campaign will be a step in the right direction. The CDC attributes this "epidemic" to a wide range of factors, ranging from poverty and stigma to an increased rate of sexually transmitted diseases.
"Blacks represent approximately 13 percent of the United States' population but account for almost half of the new HIV infections ... It's very disheartening to see this, especially 28 years out [since] we've had the AIDS diagnosis," Carter said. "But we've come to the realization that these people [who need our service] are not going to come in here to us. We're going to have to go out there to them. We're going to have to make ourselves visible and available to the community. We just need the backing of the community, to be supportive of us, because we're out there to do a service for the people. And it's just disheartening that these figures are still the way they are, based on the information that's out there."
During their outreach efforts, Carter said they want to share how one contracts HIV and AIDS -- primarily through infected syringes or needles or engaging in unprotected sex -- to help prevent people from contracting the disease.
"People are afraid of people with HIV and AIDS. We want to get rid of that," Carter said. "You can't catch it just by being around someone, you have to do something to get it, and we want to get that information out there.
"We want to get the information out there that even though there's no cure for it, there is care. And you can get treatment, and people can live long, productive lives. But on the other hand, we don't want them to think, 'Well, if I get it what's the big deal?' Because it is a big deal, because it is a life-changing situation that you put yourself in. And as I said, when you can put a face to someone that's talking to you, rather than getting a piece of paper or hearing something on the air, I think it makes a difference. Definitely, [we will emphasize] testing, information [and] referral. We're going to try to meet them where they are."
In addition to the street outreach program, individuals will be able to receive an oral HIV test each Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the AIDS Alliance office, 775 West Ave., Suite E, in Cartersville. During the free, anonymous test, a swab will be rubbed on a person's top and bottom gums, then placed into a solution that measures HIV enzymes. Results will be available in 20 minutes and pre- and post-counseling also will be provided.
For more information about the AIDS Alliance and its outreach campaign, contact the nonprofit at 770-606-0953.