The growing number of women and African Americans with HIV are a concern in the Coastal Health District, said Susan Alt, HIV director for the district.

Patients with a sexually transmitted disease like syphilis or gonorrhea could be just a step away from contracting HIV. If that human immunodeficiency virus isn’t properly managed, it could turn into the full-blown acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection.

The majority of people diagnosed with these diseases in the Coastal Health District of Georgia live in Chatham, Glynn and Liberty counties. This is primarily due to the location of college campuses and military bases, exacerbated by the impact of people meeting through social media, said Susan Alt, HIV director for the district, which also includes Bryan, Camden, Effingham, Long and McIntosh counties.

The growing number of women and African Americans with HIV are also a concern, she said.

Each county health department will provide free condoms and free HIV testing, no appointment necessary.


“The real concern, we are having horrendous problems with STDs in our district. Any time you have syphilis and gonorrhea and then have relations with someone who is HIV positive, the transmission is much easier,” she said.

It is easier to transmit HIV when a bacterial infection is present. The simplest starts with a sore.

“Basically, we had a 149 percent increase in syphilis in our district from 2014 and 2015,” she said. The most recent official data is from 2015.

Gonorrhea cases also showed a 38 percent increase.

“2015 was a really bad year in our state,” Alt said. “There are different variables. People living with HIV aren’t protecting themselves as much. I think folks are just not paying attention to safe-sex practices again.”

Then there is social media.

“Many of the syphilis cases we interview found their partner on social media,” she said. “People who have syphilis get interviewed by a communicable disease specialist. It is hard to inform the partner when [sex] is a casual, one-time thing.”

People need to be aware of the ongoing risks.

“All the STD markers are concerning. We know when the STD cases increase, coming behind that will be the HIV cases. Syphilis and gonorrhea are curable. HIV is not. Georgia was No. 1 for syphilis in the nation in 2015.”

Out of 2,954 syphilis cases in Georgia, 116 were in the Coastal Health District, Alt said. Data from 2015 show there were 2,569 people living with HIV in the district.

Treatment is prevention

AIDS diagnoses and deaths have steadily declined because of improved treatments, however. Support and treatment are available to everyone in the HIV Care (Ryan White Part B) Program funded clinics in Savannah, Brunswick and Hinesville. Ryan White was diagnosed with AIDS at age 13 following a blood transfusion in 1984. He lived another five years but died before the program named after him became law.

The Coastal Health District HIV clinics serves about 1,300 people for treatment, and 78 percent were virally suppressed, which improves health outcomes and decreases transmission, Alt said. This is much better than state and national viral load suppression rates.

Treatment is prevention. If everyone is tested, they are aware of their status, in care and virally suppressed, she added.

The patients in the district’s care are living below the poverty level. Many of the people with HIV are, overall, at or living below the poverty level. An example of poverty level is an annual income below $12,060 for a family of one.

“I think the 18- to 24-year-olds is where we are struggling with all these infections. Folks that age think they are invincible. And they don’t hear about these things. They become complacent about protection.”

The majority of people who contract HIV are, historically, gay men, Alt said.

Women also a concern

“Women are 30 percent of the clinic’s population,” Alt said. “The state breakdown is not quite that high. We see even if there is a decrease in the total number, women are increasing in the district.”

Women put everyone else first, from partners and children to work, before they take care of themselves, Alt said.

“They may not get tested. I think in the South in particular, women are very trusting and may not think their partner will have other relations or have sex with men. The transmission rates are higher,” she said.

In addition, the national statistics are one in 32 African American women over the age of 24 have HIV.

“We had a 21 percent increase in women over 24 from 2014 to 2015,” Alt said.

About 35 women came to be tested at the Cupcakes & Condoms National Women & Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on March 10 at the Chatham County Health Department on Eisenhower Drive.

Free testing events in larger venues will attract about 100 people. It depends on the location, Alt said.

“We’ve done Forsyth Park and had a good turnout in the past,” she said. “We’ve been doing the health department more because [people] know where the health department is. With the parks, you need a permit and tents.

“We do different locations to try to reach the populations. We have done that fairly regularly over the years. One of the issues we have found in the big park settings is we haven’t identified as many positives. The push is to go to smaller venues, like the event at the health department geared toward women and girls.

“We did something at Savannah State in February for African Americans. We do five testing events a year at Savannah State. We’ve done Armstrong a few times. We’ll do testing anywhere they will let us in.”

Author: Andria Segedy