November 29, 2006

World AIDS Day Conference Set To 'Raise Awareness'

It has been 25 years since HIV/AIDS was first identified. Medical advancements have led to treatments that offer people with the illness longer and better lives, but there is a sense among local doctors, educators and leaders that awareness of how to prevent and test for the disease has waned.

"I think it's not at the fore anymore. It's a challenge to make something so old be fresh all the time," said Dr. John Oppenheimer, a general internist in Sag Harbor and physician at Southampton Hospital's David E. Rogers Center for HIV/AIDS Care.

The center is federally funded and offers care to people with or without insurance.

This Friday is World AIDS Day, and the center will be hosting a day-long conference entitled, "HIV/AIDS Prevention and Education: Raising Awareness, Changing Behavior, Saving Lives Through Free HIV Testing." There will be four panel discussions. A free, confidential rapid oral HIV test with results in 20 minutes will also be available as well as free condoms.

In order of appearance, the topics will be: Saving Lives, Saving Souls: How Can Our Faith-Based Institutions Help Fight the Spread of HIV?; Growing Up Healthy: What Do Our Kids Know About HIV, What Do Parents Want Their Kids to Learn in School About HIV, What Do Parents Teach at Home?; Drugs, Alcohol and Mental Health: How do These Fuel the HIV Fire?; and What's Sex Got to Do with It: Who's Getting infected?

The speakers will include clergymen, teachers, doctors and attorneys.

According to Oppenheimer, 40,000 people are newly diagnosed with HIV infection every year in the United States, and "one-half of new infections are with people between the ages of 15 and 24. There are certain trends and we're trying to respond to those trends. It's becoming more a minority disease and it's also becoming more heterosexually spread – more women are being infected."

The earlier it is detected, the easier it is to treat, he emphasized. One out of four people who are infected don't know it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued new guidelines making HIV testing a more routine part of care – with the patient's consent, a doctor can order an HIV test along with a cholesterol test, if there is any risk factor.

"The face of HIV is anyone and most people don't have any symptoms develop until many years after being infected," said Oppenheimer. The treatments are getting better and easier to take, but, he noted, the disease is also "100 percent preventable."

The conference will run from 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. at Southampton Hospital's Parrish Memorial Hall on the corner of Herrick Road and Lewis Street. No pre-registration is required and it's not necessary to attend the entire conference. A complimentary lunch will be provided from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. For more information, call the center at 287-5990.

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