AIDS advocates, officials stress rapid HIV testing

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As Kristin Wright-Bishop rang a small bell every eight seconds Friday, Sandra Wimberly intoned the name of another victim of HIV infection over the lingering peal.

"That's your mother," said Ms. Wimberly, the public health educator for the East Central Health District. "That's your sister. Your brother. The preacher. The nurse." Every eight seconds, she said, another person is infected.

The true extent of the HIV epidemic in Augusta might be revealed next year, when Medical College of Georgia Hospital begins routine rapid HIV testing in its Emergency Department.

Advocates and Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver gathered Friday outside St. Paul's Episcopal Church to commemorate World AIDS Day, which is today but is being marked by a series of events that continue through Sunday.

The Augusta area has the third highest total of HIV and AIDS cases, the most outside the metro Atlanta area, said Ketty Gonzalez, the director of the East Central Health District in Augusta. Some numbers from outreach HIV testing bear that out.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this week that of 23,900 who received rapid HIV tests in eight major cities, 267 were positive, a rate of about 1 percent. In a year or so of testing by the MCG Ryan White outreach team, they have turned up 23 positives out of more than 850 tested, a rate of nearly 3 percent, said Larry Howell, the grants manager in the MCG Department of Infectious Diseases.

"We're finding them here," said outreach worker Kathleen Childs, who does testing.

Those numbers are even more reason to focus on education and testing, said Mr. Copenhaver, who has had a rapid HIV test to encourage others to do it.

"That is of grave concern to me and should be a concern for everyone in the community," he said.

MCG Hospital is one of two in the state (Grady Memorial Hospital is the other) to receive a grant from the CDC and the Georgia Division of Public Health to administer the rapid HIV tests routinely to patients in the Emergency Department. Beginning in January, the $550,000 grant should provide screening for about 6,000-7,000 patients a year, said Richard Sattin, the research director for the Department of Emergency Medicine. That should result in 100-150 new cases of HIV that could begin treatment, he said.

That could also help with preventing new infections. There are about 40,000 new cases of HIV each year and about 25 percent do not know they have it, Dr. Sattin said. Those 25 percent then account for half of all the new cases of HIV infections.

"And data has suggested that people that do know their HIV status are much more likely to take precautions than people who do not know their HIV status," Dr. Sattin said.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.

IN OBSERVANCE


The Augusta observance of World AIDS Day continues throughout the weekend.


TODAY: World AIDS Day in the Park, with an event from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at May Park and from noon to 4 p.m. at Lake Olmstead Park. Free rapid HIV testing will be offered at the Lake Olmstead event.


SUNDAY: Starts at 11 a.m. with The Church Taking the Lead at St. Mark United Methodist Church, 1296 Marks Church Road. It will conclude at 3 p.m. with the combined choir concert at Sacred Heart Cultural Center, 1301 Greene St.


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