Special Assignment: Augusta: Living with HIV, Part 1

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February 22, 2007

More than a million people in the US are living with HIV or AIDS, and at least 2000 of them are in the Augusta area.

Health officials say a lack of funding and awareness is leading to a growing number of HIV cases locally each year.

HIV and AIDS are no longer just affecting one group of people, and they are no longer only an issue in big cities. They're in the Augusta area and have been for years...and the number of cases is growing every week.

Anne Marie Bell, Noah Williams, and Tammie had never met until today but quickly found it easy to talk. Perhaps it's because they've walked in similar shoes...living in Augusta with HIV.

"I was in denial about being positive for a very long time," Noah told News 12.

They're a part of a growing number of people in the area testing positive each year for the virus that causes AIDS.

"No one wants to talk about this, being that it's an issue a lot of people are afraid of," Anne Marie said.

And the numbers are now at an all time high. Georgia ranks eighth in the nation in reported AIDS cases. The east central district, which includes Richmond, Columbia, and Burke counties, ranks third in the state with nearly 1600 AIDS cases.

And that's just AIDS. Since Georgia was one of the last states to start reporting HIV cases, that number is unknown.

MCG is treating 1000 HIV patients, and they get a new patient with the virus every other day.

Sandra Wimberly is Richmond County's public health educator. She says that while HIV is on the rise, awareness and prevention in the area is not.

She spends much of her time speaking in schools, because she says the number of teens becoming infected is frightening.

Speaking at Paine College, she said, "'Just do it.' You don't just do it, and you don't worry about the consequences until later."

"We don't teach them in their earlier years, then by the time they get to the middle school, or high school, we've lost them," she told News 12.

She says the lack of conversation leads to people not getting tested, which means the disease is spreading faster...often by people who don't even know they are infected.

"There no such thing as 'it can't happen to me'," Anne Marie said. "It can happen to you. I thought it could never happen because I was married."

The increase locally is catching the eye of Augusta mayor Deke Copenhaver, who's made HIV awareness and patient care a key part of his agenda

"Cities the size of Augusta are now facing issues that big cities faced years ago," Mayor Copenhaver said. "We need more federal funding."

"It is really difficult," Noah said. "There's no funding available, people are going without meds, they're getting sick and staying sick for longer periods of time."

It's a cause they're committed to even though they say they've dealt with the stigma and discrimination.

Noah, Anne Marie, and Tammie now join Ms. Wimberly when she speaks at schools, hoping they can help replace ignorance and fear with education and dialogue.

"Now it's a matter of letting people know, and there is something that can be done about it," Noah said.

Health experts say one in four Americans who have HIV don't even know they're infected. That's why getting tested is key.

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