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HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. It was first recognized in 1981 and is still prevalent in 2012.

Cases of new infections continue to rise in America. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 1.2 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV infection and that one in five are unaware.

In the south, rates are rising dramatically. Forty-six percent of all new infections in this country are in southern states. The CDC says African Americans face the most severe burden, with black women representing 65 percent of all new cases of HIV. In some U.S. cities, the rate of HIV infection is higher than the rate in Sub-Saharan Africa.

As a southerner and an African American woman, WHNT News 19’s Clarissa McClain fit into the categories with the greatest risk for contracting HIV and that motivated her to get tested.

Activists, like State Representative Laura Hall, (D-Madison), say this disease still needs to be on everyone’s radar. Twenty years ago, Rep. Hall had a tough time talking about HIV/AIDS.

“The death of our son at the age of 25 in 1992 was a very difficult time and a very silent time for my family,” says Hall.

It was a death caused by AIDS and a loss that prompted Hall to get involved in the effort to secure more funding for HIV/AIDS medications.

When Hall first got involved in 1993, the state budget was only $150,000 and there was a waiting list of more than 700 individuals.

“We were up to about $7 million,” explains Hall. “Now, with all of the cuts and everything, we’re probably looking at about $4 million dollars.”

That decrease in the allocation of funds worries her.

“It means we’ll have a waiting list again,” says Hall.

Rep. Hall works closely with the AIDS Action Coalition of North Alabama. The group’s mission is the stop the spread of HIV and care for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Executive Director Mary Elizabeth Marr says that starts with open dialogue, which is a tough feat in the conservative south.

“It’s taboo to talk about sex and prevention,” says Marr.

Stigma, fear, and negative perceptions about HIV testing can place many people at higher risk. Arming yourself with information is the best way to counteract that.

“Everyone says, ‘I didn’t think it was going to happen to me,’” says Marr. “No one thinks they’re at risk. The CDC now tells us anyone between the ages of 13 and 64 should be tested on a regular basis.”

Activists for HIV education and prevention say the best thing you can do is to know your status. The AIDS Action Coalition of North Alabama provides free and confidential testing five days a week.

The process begins with paperwork and an overview with a counselor. After you answer a few questions, your finger is pricked and then you wait twenty minutes for the results.

If you’re interested in getting an HIV test or would like the AIDS Action Coalition of North Alabama to come and speak to a group, please call (256) 536-4700. You can also visit the office located at 600 St. Clair Avenue in Huntsville.