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President lauds progress in global fight against AIDS  (copy)

A red ribbon symbolizing AIDS awareness is displayed at the North Portico of the White House, Sunday, Nov. 30, 2008, in Washington. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

National HIV Testing Day is Wednesday, June 27, and local health officials are hoping that residents in The T&D Region will heed this year’s message: “Take the Test, Take Control.”

According to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control’s Surveillance Report, through December 2011, the Edisto Savannah Public Health District, Region 5, reported a total of 1,170 HIV/AIDS cases, with a cumulative rate of 370 cases per 100,000 people.

Orangeburg County has a rate of 566 cases per 100,000 people. Bamberg County has a cumulative rate of 695 cases per 100,000, while Calhoun County comes in with a rate of 231 cases per 100,000 people.

The statistics are clear, but is the message of prevention?

“It’s kind of alarming, just the attitude of some of the people that we test and interview is like, ‘Well, if I get it, I get it,’” HopeHealth Edisto adherence specialist Willie Simon said.

National HIV Testing Day is an annual campaign coordinated by the National Association of People with AIDS to encourage individuals of all ages to get tested and take control of their lives. NHTD — set for Wednesday, June 27 — will be observed throughout the state.

“National Testing Day ... gives us the opportunity to highlight DHEC’s low-cost HIV testing services that are offered routinely at DHEC’s county public health departments across the state,” said Janet Tapp, director of DHEC’s STD/HIV Division. “In addition, DHEC’s community-based partners will offer free rapid HIV testing, which shows preliminary results within an hour.”

HopeHealth Edisto and its community partners will conduct free, confidential HIV testing at a few sites within the community to promote education and awareness. The testing method will be the OraQuick Rapid HIV-1 and HIV-2 Antibody Tests.

“The fact that there’s a National HIV Testing Day speaks loudly in and of itself, and gives someone permission to step out and go get tested without looking odd,” said Sallie Bachman, site supervisor for Orangeburg’s HopeHealth clinic. “I think a lot of agencies and supporters put a special effort into making it more available.”

Simon said the nationally designated day brings HIV/AIDS awareness to the forefront and helps individuals avoid complacency with sexual health.

“It generates conversation, and they know where to get the right information,” Simon said. “I want it to be a cool thing for friends to say, ‘Well, let’s go and get tested. Let’s know our status together so we can support each other.’”

There are a great number of new HIV-positive diagnoses among the 18- to 24-year-old population, Simon said, particularly among men who have sex with men.

“We’re also looking at the older generation, people over the age of 45. That’s a big target area,” Bachman said. “Some of that’s due to just lack of information. People are single again and never having really worried about this before. South Carolina ranks first in the heterosexual transmission of AIDS, and we’ve seen a lot of discussion coming forth on how to target people over age 45.”

Bachman said convenience should not be a major issue for people seeking HIV tests.

“It takes 20 minutes,” she said. “A lot of places offer it free, and we’re one of those. We have community efforts through which you can go to certain locations to do testing. We’re trying to make it more accessible, common and affordable.”

Willie Priester, executive director of the Orangeburg Area Mental Health Center, said education, awareness and accessibility are important.

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“I think the easier it is to get testing, the more likely people are to be tested,” he said.

Patricia Funderburk, community outreach manager at the Regional Medical Center, said it’s also important that individuals get tested at least once every year.

“A lot of people think, ‘Well, I’ve been tested before. I’m having sexual relations with 15 other people, but I’m good,’” she said.

Along with testing, Simon said people also need to be open to receiving education and willing to change their behavior.

Bachman said partnerships with community agencies is key in helping to get the word out.

“We can’t educate and empower our clients if we can’t maintain healthy relationships ourselves and cross the fence and say, ‘What are you doing and how can I help you?’” Bachman said.

For more information about HIV testing events and sites, call DHEC AIDS/STD Hotline at 1-800-322- AIDS (2437), HopeHealth Edisto at 803-535-2272 or visit scdhec.gov/health/disease/stdhiv/.

Contact the writer: dgleaton@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5534.

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