For World AIDS Day, Dougherty County Health Department promotes testing

Five of Southwest Health District's 14 counties are among the top 20 in the state with disproportionately high rates of HIV among women of childbearing age - so Public Health officials are offering free testing opportunities and other events to raise awareness in coming days. "Baker County has the highest rate of women of reproductive age living with HIV in Georgia," said Southwest Health District Health Director Dr. Jacqueline Grant. Higher than average rates are also found in Calhoun, Terrell, Decatur, Dougherty and Grady counties, she said. "Obviously, there are other more populous counties - such as Fulton - that have more women of child bearing age who have HIV, than Baker. We don't have as many population-wise, but when you just look at the rates themselves, when you compare apples to apples, the numbers are alarmingly high," Grant said.

To combat the high numbers as well as observe World Day AIDS Day, the Dougherty County Health Department will offer free confidential HIV testing Dec. 1 from 9 a.m. - noon and 2 p.m. - 5 p.m., said District HIV/AIDS Program Manager Chanel Scott-Dixon. Testing will also be available at Albany State University in collaboration with the university and Teen Maze, she said. Test results take approximately 20 minutes, and counseling is available, Scott-Dixon said.

Other county health departments are also offering free testing and educational events throughout the week, Grant said. Only one person out of five is aware they have the HIV infection, according to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Women who are not engaged in risky behavior - such as having multiple sex partners or sharing needles - may not be aware that they have the infection and that they can pass it on to their unborn children, Grant said. "We want to raise awareness about the importance of taking the test and taking control," said Grant. "All too often, patients don't get diagnosed until years after they have become infected. Detecting it early and starting treatment at once can prevent full-blown AIDS from developing and prolong lives."

Since anyone can get HIV/AIDS, the CDC recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 be tested as a routine part of their medical care, she said, but it is especially important for women to be tested early in pregnancy. Southwest District's HIV AIDS program offers education, testing, counseling, contact and partner identification, notification and referral for treatment. "Our services are offered through our 14 county health departments," Grant said.