Success in battling AIDS might have unintended consequences in young people who no longer fear it and in waning public concern. Local activists and health care workers say they hope to fight those trends today.
The 11th annual World AIDS Day will be observed in Augusta with a variety of events to remember those who died from the disease and educate the public about its continued impact.
Even after 15 years as a social worker, Janet Howser said she still sees a lack of understanding about it. A recent meeting with teens brought that home, said Mrs. Howser, volunteer services coordinator at Medical College of Georgia Hospital and Clinics.
"They were like, `It couldn't happen to me. And of course I don't know anybody (who is infected) and there wouldn't be anybody in Augusta who has it, probably not anybody in Georgia who has it,' just very naive about it," Mrs. Howser said. "And given that as a group they're probably one of the fastest rising groups (of people infected), I found it very disheartening."
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In fact, 20 percent of newly diagnosed cases in Georgia are people in their early 20s who probably were infected as teens, according to the Georgia Department of Human Resources. Georgia ranks eighth in the United States in the number of AIDS cases, with 1,105 in the Augusta district since 1981, the second-highest number in the state.
The proof of better treatment is apparent every day to infectious-disease doctor Jack Austin.
"Our admissions to the hospital have dropped by probably 80 to 90 percent over the last two years," Dr. Austin said. "As a matter of fact, we've admitted more people to the hospital to have coronary artery bypasses in this past year than we've admitted for complications (from the virus)."
But doctors recognize that even when it drops below detectable levels, the virus has not disappeared.
"There was a period of time where we really did think perhaps this was the beginning of the end of the problem, but it turns out it probably is going to take much longer -- 10-20 years of complete (viral) suppression to potentially achieve a cure," Dr. Austin said.
That said, it is still good news.
"We still are very excited about it, and I really don't want to take away from the fact that we've made just incredible strides in the last several years," Dr. Austin said.
More and better new drugs are coming out, including continued work toward a vaccine, he said.
"That still remains a shining light, if you will, a goal. Whether that will be here in the next few year or the next 10 years, it's still hard to guess about that," Dr. Austin said.
All of which stresses the continuing need for education, prevention and never forgetting what AIDS has done in the past and still will do, Mrs. Howser said.
"We hope our efforts will bring hope for the future and for those who will become infected and the people it has impacted," she said.
Local AIDS day events
(All events are free and open to the public)
World AIDS Day Remembrance Services at Medical College of Georgia:
8 a.m., 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. in the MCG Chapel (2nd floor of the hospital)
Noon in the Children's Medical Center Chapel (first floor)
World AIDS Day balloon launches:
10 a.m. Augusta State University
1 p.m. Paine College
World AIDS Day Ceremony:
6:30 p.m. in Paine College chapel
World AIDS Film Series, in the small auditorium at MCG:
1 p.m. After Goodbye: An AIDS Story
7 p.m. In the Gloaming
World AIDS Day Film Series at MCG: 7 p.m. Philadelphia
9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Leadership Summit on AIDS, sponsored by Carolina Christian College and Destiny Ministry Group, Faith Fellowship Church, 1896 Knobone Ave., North Augusta. For more information, call (803) 819-9809.
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213.