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Free HIV testing offered

ALBANY — In recognition of World AIDS Day on Thursday, some Southwest Georgia counties will offer free HIV testing this week.

Public health officials opted to offer the testing in light of recent news that five of the Southwest Public Health District’s 14 counties are among the top 20 in the state with disproportionately high rates of HIV among women of child-bearing age.

Baker County has the highest rate of women of reproductive age living with HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS, in Georgia, public health officials say.

“It was shocking for me to see this,” said Dr. Jacqueline Grant, the health district director. “After getting this information, we felt we needed to get together to develop some type of outreach program.

“In order to save lives, people need to know their status.”

Higher-than-average rates were also reportedly found in Calhoun, Terrell, Decatur, Dougherty and Grady counties. Officials say part of the reason for the high numbers is that Southwest Georgia has fewer women of reproductive age overall than areas of the state that are more densely populated.

Even so, when comparing apples to apples, officials say the rates are alarmingly high.

“Any time you are looking at rates, you are looking at the number of positive cases over the total number in this age group,” Grant said. “When we do a rate of per 100,000, the rate will be higher, even though the total number (of women in reproductive age) is lower.

“In larger areas, there is more of a dilution effect.”

To combat the high numbers as well as observe World AIDS Day, the Dougherty County Health Department will offer HIV testing from 9 a.m.-noon and 2 p.m.-5 p.m. on Thursday.

Free confidential testing, counseling and education will also be offered at the Baker County Health Department throughout the day Wednesday. At the Mitchell County Health Department, a “Girls’ Night In” is scheduled in that facility’s lobby so that testing may be conducted from 5:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m. Thursday.

There are also opportunities for testing in Thomas County, including one at the St. Luke CME Church on Chatham Drive from 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

Test results take approximately 20 minutes.

Only one person out of five is aware he or she has the HIV infection, according to the 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.

“(The testing efforts) can serve as an educational opportunity,” Grant said. “Some women may not realize they are at risk. By this, hopefully women will start to calculate their risks differently.

“We want women to know the rates are high. When a certain number of our population is infected, it increases the risk. We have HIV here, and people need to know this and protect themselves.”

The CDC recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 be tested for HIV as a routine part of their medical care. Health officials say it is especially important for women to be tested early in pregnancy.

For more information, people are encouraged to contact their respective county health departments.