TIFTON -- People who believe AIDS and HIV only happens to people in larger cities should think again, said local health officials and volunteers who hope to better educate the public and raise awareness.

"People think it isn't in Tifton, but it is," said Stephanie Allen, health education aid and outreach coordinator with the South Georgia Health District.

Allen said the Department of Human Resources hasn't allowed Health Departments to release statistics for a particular county since March. But statewide since then, 25,928 cases of adult and adolescent AIDS have been reported. Of those, 16,688 confirmed AIDS cases were in African-Americans.

"There were 211 cases in children 13 years of age and younger in the state since March," Allen said.

The state has also recorded 13,468 AIDS-related deaths in adults and adolescents and 115 of the deaths in children between birth and 13.

"The exposure category for the state showed that the highest percentage are still men who have sex with men, but not far behind are the intravenous drug users," Allen said. "Unfortunately, the heterosexual contact is growing right behind that."

Allen believes there is a challenge to reach people living in smaller communities with life-saving information.

"I think people still believe it won't happen to them," Allen said. "People think AIDS only happens in Atlanta, Savannah and other big cities and that it's not here. It is here."

The stigma and discrimination AIDS and HIV positive patients continue to face can be detrimental to their progress.

"These people are positive. They are struggling every day to live and to be normal and people should stop being judgmental," Allen said. "Drugs are getting better and easier to take and people are living longer. The treatment for HIV is looking better than it was 10 years ago."

Local volunteers worked at the Tifton Mall Monday, World AIDS Day 2003, handing out pamphlets with information about AIDS and HIV and red lapel ribbons for people to wear in memory of those who have died.

Travis Peterson, vice president of the South Health District's Consumer Advisory Board (C.A.B.), said education of the public and patients is key to fighting the disease. The South Georgia Health District includes Ben Hill, Berrien, Brooks, Cook, Echols, Irwin, Lanier, Lowndes, Tift and Turner counties.

"We encourage people with HIV and AIDS to be active and responsible for their own health," Peterson said. "It does affect everybody, directly or indirectly. Even if you don't know someone who has been infected, it could be the person you see walking across the street."

A red wreath and signs containing statistics on HIV and AIDS was placed on display on the grounds of the Tift County courthouse a week ago. Allen said the wreaths were placed in Tift and Lowndes counties, the two largest counties in the district.

"We wanted to get people's attention," Allen said. "In this area, the numbers are growing and people still can't believe they can get it (AIDS/HIV)."

Peterson said members of C.A.B. oversee the quality of treatment received at the district's health departments and encourages HIV/AIDS patients to be active and responsible for their health. C.A.B. members also volunteer to work booths at health fairs, some of which have been canceled because of the cuts in state funding to local programs.

C.A.B. is funded by a grant and is prohibited from raising money, but Peterson said plans are to develop a support group that will begin meeting next year.

"We meet in Adel sometimes and talk about all sorts of issues," Peterson said. "I think there needs to be a support group where people can talk about their problems."

To contact reporter Angie Thompson, call 382-4321, ext. 208.

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