"World AIDS Day is a day that's designated to draw attention to the issue of HIV and AIDS and the fact that since the epidemic has been known about it has claimed the lives of over 30 million people worldwide," Thomas said, adding this year is extremely significant, being the 30th anniversary of the first documented cases of AIDS. "Also worldwide, an estimated 34 million currently live with HIV. In the United States, we have about 575,000 people who have actually died from AIDS.
"So it really is a time to draw attention to the great loss that the world has known because of this disease. So it's a recognition of that and an acknowledgment of those lives that we've lost as well as the need for services in today's world and the need for prevention. So it's really a combination of all those factors."
Formed in 1992, the AIDS Alliance assists 110 HIV/AIDS clients, ranging in age from 12 to 70, in 10 northwest Georgia counties. Along with offering HIV/AIDS education and prevention, the Cartersville-based nonprofit also provides services to its clients, such as a housing program and transportation to doctors' appointments.
"This year, I think what I would like for people to really take to heart [on World AIDS Day] is that, in order for us to slow down the spread of HIV, we have to personally take responsibility for ourselves because the CDC -- the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] -- estimates there are about 1.2 million people living with HIV infection in the United States but 20 percent of those people [do not] know it," Thomas said. "So  percent of those people really don't know that they have the infection and because of that they themselves are at risk of serious health issues because they're not in treatment and they are also potentially spreading it to other people because they don't know that they have it and they're not as careful as they should be. So I think my message this year really is that it's the responsibility of each individual to know their own HIV status and through testing, anyone can find out their HIV status."
At its office -- 1 Friendship Plaza, on the third floor of Cartersville's Train Depot -- the AIDS Alliance administers free oral HIV tests each Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. In honor of World AIDS Day, the nonprofit is administering tests today from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. During the anonymous test, a swab is rubbed on a person's top and bottom gums, then placed into a solution that measures HIV enzymes. Results are available in 20 minutes and pre- and post-counseling also are provided.
"The one we do here is a 20-minute rapid HIV test, very easy to find out [the results], or anyone could ask their doctor to do the HIV test for them and there are other locations," Thomas said. "But the point being [is] that if you don't know your HIV status, you should and many people are reluctant to go that route. There is somewhat of a stigma related to, of course, HIV and AIDS and even as it relates to getting tested for HIV.
"People don't want to be perceived as being someone who might have been at risk. But we have to get past that and the Centers for Disease Control for a number of years has suggested that HIV testing become a routine part of health care. So we work toward that ourselves -- let it become a routine part of your own health care and stop thinking of it as some odd thing that you might do because the more people that are tested, the more people that are identified as having HIV, the more chance we have of slowing the spread."
By the end of the year, the AIDS Alliance will have conducted 500 HIV tests, many of which were administered to individuals contacted through the nonprofit's outreach campaign.
"Two hundred and fifty of those were outreach and high risk. High risk are people that have unprotected sex, are drug abusers, [have] multiple partners [and are] uneducated on HIV," said Kim Byron, HIV educator and testing specialist for AIDS Alliance. "[From March to August], we went out to high-risk areas where you had drug users, homeless people [and] provided education on HIV, the prevention of HIV, did testing on the spot, provided them with basic toiletries, condoms, referral information."
"And we went back into those communities on a biweekly basis," she said, referring to the outreach campaign that was supported by a grant from Georgia Department of Public Health. "Right now we're [visiting] YDCs [youth detention centers and] health functions at various churches, doing basic education and testing if they request it."
Along with spreading awareness about their organization, the AIDS Alliance also is raising funds for its general operations through the Christmas Tour of Homes -- Cartersville 2011 event. Set for Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 6 p.m., the tour features 13 traditional and loft dwellings that are decorated for the holidays.
Tickets for the tour cost $20 and can be purchased in advance at four Cartersville locations: Moore's Gourmet Market, 227 Fite St.; Periwinkle, 22 E. Church St.; Mission Tire, 121 S. Gilmer St.; and the AIDS Alliance.
Attendees also can obtain tickets during tour hours at the featured homes or at the Train Depot in downtown Cartersville, where refreshments will be available and buses will shuttle people to the residences free of charge.
For more information, call the AIDS Alliance at 770-606-0953.