Monday, June 25, 2007

Take the Test. Take Control. Take a Vacation.

You think HIV is old news, right?

Since we have drugs, and HIV is no longer the death sentence it was in the early 1980s (at least in the developed world), we don’t have to worry about it, right?
  • Tell that to the 40,000+ Americans who will contract HIV this year.

  • Tell that to the 1 million+ Americans who are living with HIV.

  • In particular, tell it to the 25% of that latter group who have no idea they are HIV-infected---and who therefore put every one of their sexual partners (and their sexual partners, etc.) at risk out of ignorance.

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I’ve been writing about HIV professionally for seven years now. The numbers haven’t come down in that time, despite our best efforts. And all the data I’m seeing now indicate that the numbers are going up. The prevalence rates for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in major metropolitan areas are rising dramatically.

STIs are harbingers of HIV/AIDS. They serve almost as a public address system---“This person is engaging in unsafe sexual practices!” They also make people more susceptible to HIV infection.

Mark my words, HIV is going to be news again. The question is: Will anyone pay attention?

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Wednesday, June 27th, marks the 15th annual observance of National HIV Testing Day---a day devoted to encouraging voluntary HIV testing. Prevention is the best defense against HIV, of course---but until we can find a cure and/or a vaccine for HIV (still a long-shot), testing is our next-best option to defeat it.

The motto for the day is Take the Test. Take Control. People who know they are HIV-infected can take precautions to avoid transmitting the virus to their partners. People who know they are HIV-infected can get the medical care and other support they need to remain healthy longer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommend that, in all healthcare settings:

  • Americans between the ages of 13-64 be tested for HIV as a routine part of medical care.

  • HIV testing be done on an opt-out basis, so that people will be routinely tested unless they explicitly declare that they do not want the test.

  • All pregnant women be tested for HIV, and women in areas with high rates of HIV be retested in the third trimester.

  • People at high risk for HIV be tested at least once a year—and more often if their risk factors indicate a need. High-risk individuals are those who:

    • Have shared injection drug needles and syringes or "works"

    • Have had sex without a condom with an HIV-positive partner

    • Have had a sexually transmitted disease, like chlamydia or gonorrhea

    • Had a blood transfusion or received a blood clotting factor between 1978-1985

    • Have had sex with someone who has done any of those things

That means each and every one of you reading this blog (since I doubt seriously that I have any readers under the age of 13) should be taking an HIV test this week---or at least at your next physical exam.

Don’t tell me that you aren’t at risk. If you have ever had sex with another person, you are at risk. Period. Ditto if you’ve ever shot up.

It is true that your risk may be miniscule. But by taking an HIV test, especially when your risk is negligible, you lessen the stigma of taking the test for those whose risk is NOT negligible.

Stigma is our biggest challenge to stopping the spread of HIV. People don’t take the test because they fear getting a bad result. They don’t take the test because they fear that people will make assumptions about them---that if they need an HIV test, they must be doing something “nasty” (I actually heard an elected official use that term recently).

When HIV tests become as routine a part of a medical exam as a blood count, or a urinalysis, we will have gone a long way toward defeating the virus.

You can do something about the stigma, if you dare. You can help us stop the spread of HIV simply by being willing to ask your doctor for an HIV test if s/he doesn’t offer you one at your next medical visit. (And if your doctor does offer you a test, be sure to comment on how happy you are that s/he is offering the best standard of medical care!)

If your risk truly is negligible, why not? You already know what the answer is going to be. And the new rapid tests involve only an oral swab---no blood required! You can know the results in about 20 minutes.

If you are worried about your doctor wondering what you’ve been up to because you ask for the test---well, now you know how it feels to someone who is genuinely at-risk, and is afraid to admit it.

That person could be your next sexual partner. Or your child’s.

I know we aren’t supposed to use scare tactics to motivate people anymore. But I’m tired of the numbers. Tired of seeing the graphs either flat-line, or beginning to inch inexorably up. On this blog, at least, I’m not above using scare tactics, or just plain old-fashioned guilt.

Which one will it take to get you to be a part of the solution?

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You can find a testing location near you at HIVtest.org. Simply enter your ZIP code and indicate how far you are willing to go for a test, and the search engine will find a site for you.

And if you need more information about HIV/AIDS, please visit AIDS.gov. You can find links there to just about anything you would need to know about the domestic HIV/AIDS epidemic. I particularly commend to you the National HIV Testing Day “Webinar” for Bloggers. (And please don't give me grief about the "webinar"---I didn't make it up.)

Next year, I hope to be able to tell you that the numbers are dropping.

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On a personal note...National HIV Testing Day is one of my biggest days of the year, workwise. Now that it has finally arrived, I am officially exhausted, and I have earned a vacation.

I’m going to take a break from blogging (my own and others) and, particularly, from Anglican Communion politics! For the next couple of weeks, I hope to do some writing, some reading, lots of sleeping(!), and reconnecting with family and friends.

I will continue to keep all of my Invisible Friends in my prayers, and I ask that you keep me in yours. When I return, I hope to have some interesting things to share.

Until then, go with God. And take the damned test!