Nate Scott, right, a volunteer from Grace City Church, administers… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
The Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland, in partnership with a number of faith-based volunteer groups, set up clinics at churches and faith-based community centers around Baltimore Monday to provide free HIV testing services and to raise awareness about getting tested.
Maryland has the second-highest HIV/AIDS infection rate in the nation, according to Dr. Robert Redfield, director of clinical care at IHV, who joined advocates, politicians and volunteers at Seventh Metro Baptist Church in the Charles North neighborhood.
"The Baltimore- Washington metropolitan area is one of the major epicenters of the epidemic," he said. "The tragedy is that almost 26 years after the diagnostic test became available, somewhere between 25 to 30 percent of people don't know if they're infected, and that's what's continuing to drive the epidemic."
There are between 6,000 and 9,000 people in the area who have HIV and are not aware of it, said Heather Hauck, director of the Maryland Infectious Disease and Environmental Health Administration.
IHV partnered with churches and interfaith centers to do the HIV testing because they often can be the heart of a community.
"Many people are engaged in the faith community, whatever it is," Redfield said. "If you can get that faith community to be engaged with that individual, you've just enhanced your community health assets enormously."
The JACQUES Initiative, an HIV therapy and counseling program run by IHV, and City Uprising, a program organized by the Gallery Church of Baltimore, also provided volunteers to help with testing. City Uprising trains its volunteers in HIV testing and counseling.
Last year, the event tested more than 1,000 people in a single day. This year, the groups hoped to test at least 1,500.
"To test 1,500 people today would put a big dent in the number of people who need to be tested, and we've got to encourage people who do get tested to tell their friends to be tested," Rep. Elijah E. Cummings said.
In addition to increasing awareness, some of the volunteers at Seventh Metro are people who were tested and were found to be HIV-positive.
Judith Shaw has been HIV-positive for more than 15 years.
"I started volunteering to test people because I'm positive myself — I have been since 1992 — and for me, I just want people to know that they can live well with this virus. I believe that what you don't know can kill you," Shaw said.
"I know what it's like to be scared, and I know what it's like to not want to start on medication. And that's what makes my heart just want to be in the community; that's why I do what I do."
People started coming in for testing as soon as the church clinic opened at 10 a.m. In addition, a van was set up outside to offer counseling services to those who tested positive.
Kanisha Abdullah, 29, who came in to be tested, said that such services are essential in the city, and she hoped that the organizations would expand the testing to other areas in Baltimore.
"I think it's important for everybody to be aware of what's going on with their bodies when they have partners and get tested for AIDS, because it's a serious problem," she said. "There are a lot of places [in Baltimore] where people are at high risk, and people don't know how to get tested."
Derek Spencer, executive director of the JACQUES Initiative, also spoke of the effect this event had on the community.
"HIV has allowed us to come together as a community," he said. "We believe that if you want to change a city, you have to engage a city. … We've engaged community volunteers from a wide spectrum of organizations to increase our capacity in our efforts to reach Baltimoreans."