Red is a good color for the 500 carnations being handed out this weekend at many Waterville and Augusta area businesses and organizations.

That’s because red typically alerts us to something important happening, and in this case, that couldn’t be more true.

Today is National Women & Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, and to mark the occasion the folks at MaineGeneral Health’s Horizon Program have taken bunches of the 500 red carnations to area businesses, churches and other places and are inviting people to take one, free of charge.

Tied to each flower with a little red ribbon is a card offering information for women and girls about HIV and AIDS.

For instance, did you know that globally, HIV affects more women than men? Or that in the U.S. today, women account for more than one in four new HIV and AIDS cases?

The Horizon Program, with offices in Augusta and Gardiner, provides medical and social services to people with HIV and AIDS in central and mid-coast Maine.

Information about that program is listed on the cards attached to the carnations. More information is available at www.mainegeneral.org/horizon or the clinic at 626-1051. To find out if you have HIV, you may get tested anonymously; the number to call about that is 621-3770.

“Being educated is so important because we’re able to save lives,” Elena Mamonova, Horizon’s program director, told me this week in a phone conversation. “This disease is so preventable and the complications after you get it can be so severe.”

MaineGeneral Medical Center’s Augusta and Waterville hospitals (Thayer, in Waterville) will have the carnations in their lobbies on Monday for the taking.

The businesses, churches and organizations in Waterville and Augusta started giving them out Thursday and will continue to do so until they are gone.

Waterville sites include Barrels Community Market, Adams & Worth, Hardy Girls Healthy Women, Community Dental Center, Women’s Initiative, Jorgensen’s Cafe, Pleasant Street United Methodist Church and the Water Street warming center.

In Augusta, carnations are at the Horizon Program on Green Street, Bread of Life Soup Kitchen, Green Street Methodist Church and the local warming center.

Mamonova says HIV and AIDS still carries a stigma of being a gay man’s disease but that is not the case.

“One in four diagnoses are now women,” she said.

About 1,563 people in Maine are living with HIV and AIDS and of that number, 253 are women, she said. The Horizon Program alone serves about 200 people, 22 percent of whom are women.

Educational programs, community outreach, counseling and support for people infected and affected by HIV and AIDS are offered by Horizon, which is funded mostly by grants. Horizon also is planning the annual Central Maine AIDS Walk in Hallowell May 19 to help raise funds for the program.

Years ago people who contracted HIV and AIDS saw it as a death sentence but that has changed as better treatments have become available, according to Mamonova. Now, HIV and AIDS is viewed more as a chronic disease that can be treated with medications.

“But the treatments are still very harsh and they do come with side effects,” she said. “There are still struggles. It’s not an easy treatment, by any means.”

Women and girls from all walks of life and of all ages, race and ethnicities may contract HIV and AIDS, she said.

“It doesn’t differentiate.”

The Horizon Program offers people with HIV and AIDS all the services they need in one place in an effort to help them live well. A primary care doctor, mental health counselors, case managers and nutritionists are among those who are there to help.

The most encouraging part, for people who need the program, is that the services are completely confidential and free.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 24 years. Her column appears here Saturdays. She may be reached at [email protected]