"The biggest problem as far as HIV is that people don't talk about it," said Gardner, who contracted HIV in December 2006 from having intimate relations with her boyfriend. "We need to get people to a point that they talk about it because people are going to keep it under cover if we [continue] keeping it under cover. What we need to do is start talking about it to keep it from spreading. Education is the biggest part of it. Also getting tested because if you don't know you've got it, how [are] you going to get treated?
"[I am speaking] in order for them to be able to identify with someone who has it. [That] is the biggest reason I speak. What I really want them to take away from it is they don't have to be scared because fear is what keeps a lot of people from doing a whole lot of things. You've got to get past that fear."
Since the first cases of AIDS were documented in the early 1980s, www.AIDS.gov reports about 1.7 million Americans have been diagnosed with HIV. Of those, more than 1.1 million currently are living with HIV, with more than 615,000 having succumbed to the disease, which in its late stages severely affects one's immune system. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even though African-Americans only comprise about 14 percent of the United States' population, they account for nearly half of the individuals testing positive for HIV.
To help bring further attention to HIV and AIDS, St. Luke A.M.E., led by the Rev. Charles Ramsey Jr., will host Joy Night on Saturday, March 10, from 6 to 8 p.m. at 130 Jones St. in Cartersville. Spearheaded by the church's health ministry, the educational and praise-filled program will culminate its celebration of the National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS. Along with asking area churches to pray for the healing of AIDS during their worship services on Sunday, March 4, the Rev. Annie Carter -- coordinator of St. Luke A.M.E.'s health ministry -- requests that individuals send up a daily prayer at 12:30 p.m. from March 5 to 10.
"And then that Saturday, because I'm a believer that when you pray God answers prayer, we want to come together at St. Luke's for what is called a Joy Night, where we can joyfully accept the answers to our prayers from the Lord," said Carter, a member of St. Luke A.M.E. who previously served as the director of HIV Testing and Preventive Services for the AIDS Alliance of Northwest Georgia. "And we're asking choirs and groups and dancers to come and celebrate the Lord together. Denomination does not matter. We're asking everyone to come because HIV and AIDS does not discriminate. It goes beyond all boundaries -- economically, race, ethnicity, all of that.
"So we're asking everyone to be involved in this. ... [Through this event], I'm hoping that people will be more aware," she said, adding basic information about HIV and AIDS also will be dispersed. "I'm hoping that people will come together. I'm hoping that the stigma of HIV and AIDS will be dispelled. I'm hoping that people will look to each other with love and caring and stop pushing each other away. And I'm hoping we can come together in prayer no matter who we are. Whether we're HIV-positive or not, whether we're black, white, Hispanic, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, whatever, that we can pray together."
At the March 10 gathering, the AIDS Alliance also will administer free oral HIV tests. The anonymous test will include a swab that is rubbed on a person's top and bottom gums, then placed into a solution that will measure HIV enzymes. Results will be available in 20 minutes and pre- and post-counseling will be provided.
"The National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS goes back for a number of years," said Lola Thomas, executive director for the AIDS Alliance, a Cartersville-based nonprofit which assists 110 HIV and AIDS clients, ranging in age from 12 to 70, in 10 northwest Georgia counties. "We think it's very important to draw attention to the need for HIV testing and to do that through churches because pastors are influential and their [congregations] listen to them. If a pastor discusses HIV and encourages testing and so forth, then the people are more likely to find it acceptable. So because of that we have always been pleased to be a part of the National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS.
"As it relates to testing, it ties in in that people are very reluctant many times to get tested. They think it might imply that they've done something wrong. What we like to encourage people to do is to treat it as a matter of their healthcare and to just put aside any thoughts of what others might think and look after their own health."
While the CDC estimates more than 1 million Americans are living with HIV, about 20 percent of those are unaware of their health status. With the virus being transmitted through bodily fluids, some of the high-risk activities include unprotected sexual contact and intravenous drug use.
"The most important thing when someone is HIV positive is that they find that out early in the infection so that they get into the proper healthcare," Thomas said. "They don't always at the early stage need any type of intervention, such as medicines or things of that sort. But [they may] simply need to be monitored regularly by their doctor to make sure that they are aware and their doctor is aware of when a moment comes when they do need to perhaps be on medication.
"Early intervention in terms of medical treatment is crucial. The only way a person can know if they're HIV positive is to get an HIV test. Many people don't get tested and if a person doesn't get tested but they're infected years can go by before they show any symptoms. So sometimes what happens is by the time they have a symptom, their disease process is well advanced. Then it becomes an issue of having to get better and to overcome the damage that's already been done to their immune system. So learning one's HIV status is crucial and particularly if a person's infected to know that as soon as possible so that they can be monitored is the key."
For more information about Joy Night, contact Carter at 770-335-0385. More details about the AIDS Alliance's services can be obtained by calling 770-606-0953.