On June 27, National HIV Testing Day encourages all Americans to learn their HIV status. It may be the most important test you take!
National HIV Testing Day began in 1995 as a way to raise awareness of the importance of HIV testing.
While medical advancements have reduced the mortality of an HIV diagnosis over the past 30 years, it's still estimated that 50,000 people are newly infected in the US each year.
Experts believe that one out of every five people who are HIV positive do not know their status.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested – regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, or class. For those at an increased risk, the recommendation is to get tested at least once every year.
HIV is most commonly transmitted through unprotected sex and injection (IV) drug use with contaminated needles. Men who are sexually active with other men, IV drug users and people with multiple sex partners fall into the higher risk category.
“The best start to addressing HIV is to get tested and know your status,” says Marcus Sanchez, communications coordinator at AIDS Services of Austin, the largest provider of HIV and AIDS services in Central Texas.
Like many regional clinics around the country, AIDS Services of Austin provides free and confidential HIV testing in linkage to care. You can find services in your region by searching at hivtest.cdc.gov.
Sanchez told dailyRx that he often sees people come in to get tested when they start a new relationship, or when they're in a relationship and they're not sure what their partner's history or current activities are. Others come in on a routine basis.
He said that getting tested gives people a sense of empowerment, in that they're making responsible decisions by knowing their status. If they're negative, they feel a sense of security. If they're positive, they can get early treatment.
Unfortunately, there's still a stigma around HIV and getting tested – a reason why no sign marks the nonprofit's building. “We have people that, because of certain stigmas and certain beliefs or misconceptions they have, they don't get tested, or they wait until get sick,” Sanchez said.
It can be many years after infection that a person starts getting sick from HIV. In that time, they could have unknowingly infected many more people, and may be progressing into AIDS.
AIDS is tougher to treat than HIV. Antiretroviral drugs that effectively fight HIV in the body can keep a patient living a long and relatively healthy life.
“It's not a death sentence,” said Sanchez. “It's better to know your status than not. The medications help, but it's important to know that we still need to do our parts to protect ourselves and the people we're with.”
INSIDE THE TEST
Many people may be intimidated by HIV testing, fearing an impersonal doctor's office and a blood test. But the reality is quite different.
AIDS Services of Austin offers free testing year round, every Wednesday. Walking in, you'll find a pleasant receptionist and a lobby stocked with magazines and condoms.
The test is given in a small room lined with comfortable leather couches. It's the farthest thing from a sterile doctor's table.
Counselors are trained to deliver the test and provide counseling. The entire appointment takes about 40 minutes – from taking the test, learning about HIV risk factors, and post-results counseling.
The standard HIV test is done from a blood sample and takes two weeks to analyze for results, while a rapid oral swab test that delivers results in twenty minutes.
There's no need for rubber gloves, syringes, or band-aids. The OraQuick Advance test, which AIDS Services of Austin uses, relies on oral fluid collected around the person's outer gums.
It almost looks like a pregnancy test – a plastic stick with a swab on the end. The person getting tested swabs in a circle around their upper and lower gums one time around, and then the test is inserted into a developer solution.
In twenty minutes, two lines on the plastic part of the test will indicate whether the test has been done correctly, and display results.
There are three possible results: Negative, pre-positive, and positive. A pre-positive test means that another, more specific test must be performed in order to verify whether HIV antibodies are present.
That typically happens in pregnant women, and when the infection is more recent. Sometimes, results appear indeterminate until after a person has been infected for three months.
The OraQuick Advance test is 99.6 percent accurate. It makes it very easy to know your status as soon as you get tested.
In addition to nonprofits like AIDS Services of Austin, you can also find testing services in clinics, hospitals, doctors offices and at special events in the community.
For National HIV Testing Day, many outreach events are happening around the country to raise awareness and get people tested.