"With [National] Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, it's just an important time to emphasize the crisis in the black community related to the high infection rates among African-Americans," said Lola Thomas, executive director for the AIDS Alliance. "This is a trend that continues to worsen in terms of the numbers in the black community as compared to in other populations. And the reasons are complex. ... I think that socioeconomic issues is at the heart of it and beyond that there's a lot of speculation about what may have led to the numbers being such as they are.
"But with the African-American population, we here at the AIDS Alliance have for a number of years tried to make the point that everyone needs to be aware that this is a major problem and to encourage people to get tested for HIV. We've had some successes. We are pleased that we have a lot of black churches who emphasize to their congregations on a regular basis the issue of HIV and the need for testing. There are a number of black churches who invite us to come and do testing on-site at their churches. And we're pleased to have partners in the fight against HIV in the black community."
As with every Tuesday, the AIDS Alliance is administering free oral HIV tests on National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Conducted at the organization's office -- 1 Friendship Plaza, on the third floor of Cartersville's Train Depot -- the anonymous test includes a swab that is rubbed on a person's top and bottom gums, then is placed into a solution that measures HIV enzymes. Results are available in 20 minutes and pre- and post-counseling also are provided.
"Being an African-American person myself, I'm very much aware of the stigmas that cause people not to come for testing," said Pat Jennings, HIV testing and education specialist for the AIDS Alliance. "And that's why it's so important that we do education and that the education that we do is friendly ... because there is a lot of fear in the community and there's a fear of testing because [people think] if you come for a test then automatically you must have something. So no one wants to [have others] see you go into a testing site.
"One of the advantages of us being here at The Welcome Center is you can come into this building and no one knows why you're here except to get information about Cartersville and the surrounding attractions, which is great. And for that we've seen a lot more people coming in for testing. ... The most important thing with testing is the fact that once you come in and we are able to give you your result then you know at that point whether you need further care, which means perhaps you are HIV positive and you can go into treatment. And that's one of the problems that I've seen from everything I've read and for so many people I've talked with is the fact people don't come in early enough to be tested and by the time they get here, they're already at AIDS as a diagnosis instead of HIV. That's why we stress the importance to test once a year just like you get your yearly physical because that way we know that you'll be a lot healthier. [AIDS is] no longer considered a death sentence. It's now a chronic disease. The newer medications are working very well."
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 nonprofit also provides services to its clients, such as a housing program and transportation to doctors' appointments.
"A challenge for us that we face coming up is that our funding to do prevention work comes from the Georgia Department of Public Health, and we've been fortunate over the years to receive grants from them to do HIV education in the community and HIV testing," Thomas said. "Our focus has primarily been on the African-American community because of those high infection rates. Unfortunately the Department of Public Health is undergoing some major changes at the state level, which means that we may not have any funding from them after March of this year.
"It will have a major impact on us. The income we get for prevention funding from them comprises about 25 percent of our overall budget. [So if this happens] we'll be searching for other funding. The problem is that we are a small agency in a rural community and grants are much more difficult for us to find. If we were in the metropolitan area, there are a lot of CDC-funded grants in addition to the funds we're referring to from the Department of Public Health that might be available to us. In a rural setting, that's much more difficult. We would have to rely more on small grants from foundations and other organizations. So it will have a huge impact on us. It may mean staff cutbacks."
Calling the possible cuts "the worst funding crisis we've experienced related to HIV prevention in the last 10 years," Thomas said this also might lead to services being curtailed at the AIDS Alliance.
"We anticipate [the reduction in funds] will happen, although we don't have the formal announcement yet," Thomas said. "So that's a real negative for us. What we're looking at now is if that happens, how we can continue to offer prevention services. We will continue with prevention services. We're just not sure of the scale on which we'll be able to offer those.
"We certainly would then be more dependent on volunteers who might help in the area of HIV prevention. And we do have volunteers who are willing and able to help us in that regard but there's no question it would mean a cut back of some of our services. That coming at a time when HIV infection rates among African-Americans continues to soar is especially troubling."
For more information about the AIDS Alliance's services, call 770-606-0953.