"Getting treatment early is critical to the success of the treatment itself in that if you wait and you don't get tested and you have HIV for a long period of time, say years, which can happen with no symptoms showing up, then many times your immune system at that point has been compromised significantly," Thomas said. "So then even when you go on treatment, you're having to build your system back up versus if you know you're HIV positive early on, then the treatment can just keep it stable so that you don't have that low sinking place followed by hopefully recovery. And for some people quite honestly there is no recovery.
"If you don't get tested and you're HIV positive for many years, sometimes people find out when they've been hospitalized for a really dreadful illness. So sometimes you don't even have an opportunity to recover. It's that serious."
Formed in 1992, the AIDS Alliance assists about 110 HIV/AIDS clients 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.
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. For National HIV Testing Day, the nonprofit is conducting tests Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 7 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.
"HIV Testing Day tries to help people understand that getting tested is crucial and what we know is that among adults in the United States, only about half of the adults have ever been tested for HIV. ... [And] 20 percent of the people that have HIV [do not] know it," Thomas said. "And that causes great concern because not only is their health likely to decline dramatically but they're more likely also to infect other people with it. They don't know they have it, so they don't take appropriate precautions."
Found in certain bodily fluids, Thomas said HIV primarily is transmitted by unprotected sexual relations with an infected person or contaminated needles.
According to www.aids.gov, "The first cases of what would later become known as AIDS were reported in the United States in June of 1981. Since then, 1.7 million people in the U.S. are estimated to have been infected with HIV, including over 619,000 who have already died and approximately 1.2 million (1,178,350) adults and adolescents who were living with HIV infection at the end of 2008, the most recent year for which national prevalence estimates are available. The impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic spans the nation with HIV diagnoses having been reported in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. dependencies, possessions, and associated nations.
"CDC estimates that more than one million people are living with HIV in the U.S. One in five (20 [percent]) of those people living with HIV is unaware of their infection. Despite increases in the total number of people living with HIV in the U.S. in recent years, the annual number of new HIV infections has remained relatively stable. However, new infections continue at far too high a level, with approximately 50,000 Americans becoming infected with HIV each year. More than 17,000 people with AIDS in the U.S. died in 2009 and more than 619,000 people with AIDS in the U.S. have died since the epidemic began."
For more information about the AIDS Alliance's offerings, call 770-606-0953.