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Inmates in Georgia's prison system now must undergo a mandatory HIV test before leaving the corrections system under a state law that took effect this month.

Though the intent of the law is to inform inmates of their health status and help prevent HIV from spreading, some doctors say testing should be voluntary.

"I don't think we have to force them," said Dr. David Wohl, co-director for HIV services for the North Carolina Department of Corrections. "It's the easy answer. It isn't necessarily the right answer."

Georgia Department of Corrections and state health offices have not yet designed protocols for following the new guidelines.

Dr. Wohl said studies show that when informed and tested on an opt-out basis the majority of prisoners get tested.

Opt-out testing makes the HIV test part of overall inmate health screening, and it is removed only if inmates say they do not want the test.

PDF: HIV testing in prisons

BY THE NUMBERS

* 2: Percent of Georgia prisoners who are HIV positive, five times the rate of the total U.S. population

* 1: Percent of Tennessee prisoners who are HIV positive

* 88: Number of inmates thought to have contracted HIV while in Georgia prisons between 1988 and 2005 in a Centers for Disease Control study

* 856: Number of inmates who tested HIV positive during the study period

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Dr. Wohl said the majority of HIV-positive inmates arrived at corrections facilities with the infection.

In North Carolina inmates are tested in the opt-out system when they arrive in prison.

Since 1988, Georgia corrections have used mandatory testing of inmates when they arrive and testing by request while the inmate is incarcerated.

A 2005 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study showed that the rate of HIV-positive individuals is five times higher in the prison population than the outside population.

The same study found 856 HIV positive inmates in the Georgia prison system. Eighty-eight of them tested negative when they started their prison terms and contracted the illness while incarcerated.

One percent of Tennessee's prison population is HIV-positive, according to Dorinda Carter, corrections spokeswoman.

Tennessee tests all inmates under 21 upon admission to prison or if the prison doctor suspects that the inmate has HIV based on risk status, clinical indications, or an inmate requests to be tested, Ms. Carter said.

Corrections officials with knowledge of the program were unavailable for comment last week. A department spokeswoman said that health officials with the Georgia Department of Human Resources are working with the corrections department to establish education, guidance, counseling and referrals for those who test positive for HIV.

Joye Burton, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Community Health, said the program has not yet begun and that corrections will be responsible for testing.

There was no financial estimate listed with the law in the Georgia Legislature. The bill authorizes The corrections department to accept gifts to fund the testing and education program.

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