(ThyBlackMan.com) Are you HIV positive? Is your partner? Did you know that July is National HIV Awareness Month?
Regarding AIDS, knowledge is power and within just 20 minutes—the time it may take to travel from the club to the crib for a quick hook-up—one can find out with about 92% accuracy whether you or a consenting partner is carrying the life-altering virus. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the OraQuick In-Home HIV Test which uses a saliva sample obtained by oral swab to determine the presence of HIV antibodies, which if undetected can lead to AIDS.
“The plus side of the rapid, at-home testing is that we are glad to see this as an additional tool in the fight against AIDS that will contribute to more people getting tested,” said Chip Lewis, Deputy Director of Communications, for the D.C.-based Whitman-Walker Health clinic. “The reality is that a quarter to a third of those infected with HIV, do not know they’re positive. It’s so important for people to get tested, to know their results, and to seek treatment—that’s where Whitman Walker comes in,” Lewis said.
According to a 2009 Washington Post study, “at least 3 percent of District residents have HIV or AIDS, a total that far surpasses the 1 percent threshold that constitutes a ‘generalized and severe’ epidemic.”
Though the number of over all new infections in the District has declined since 2009, D.C. had over 800 new HIV infections in 2011, according to Whitman-Walker data. “We had 200 deaths from AIDS last year, which is still too many, but represents a decrease in mortality that means we’re heading in the right direction,” Lewis said.
With epidemic levels of HIV and AIDS in the District of Columbia, according to D.C.’s Department of Health, black women are at the epicenter of the crisis, with HIV rates in the past two years doubling to 12 percent amongst black women in D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods, and black women representing the vast majority of all newly reported HIV infections in the District of Columbia and nation-wide. It is because of the epidemic levels of HIV and AIDS in the District that conference organizers say D.C. was selected as ground zero for the 2012 International AIDS Conference to be held next week from July 22-July 27, at the Walter E. Johnson Convention Center, in Washington, D.C.
When asked about why so many black women are becoming infected with HIV, LaFonda Willis, 29, a D.C. educator and a heterosexual black woman who resides in the District, responded: “Being single and dating, I have concerns about men on the down-low [men having sex with men, who deny being gay], not being honest about their sexual orientation, preferences and practices.”
“A women should be able to make an informed decision as to whether she’s down with a man’s particular sexual preferences; she has the right to know,” Willis said. Could this at-home HIV screening kit demystify sexual relationships to a certain extent, and remove some of the guessing game about one’s status and that of a partner?
“I think the test is definitely convenient in a sense that you don’t have to go out of the comfort of your own home to get a result that could devastate you for the rest of your life. People who don’t want to go to the clinic, out of embarrassment, may use it,” said Willis. “And those who want to be intimate with someone they just met may be likely to use [at-home HIV testing], because the kit avoids having to go to the clinic with a new sexual partner. But caution should still be exercised.”
For Willis, it’s about black men being honest about sexual practices with the women they’re dating. For Lewis, of Whitman-Walker Health, “It is behavioral patterns—not race, sexual orientation, or gender—that contribute to increased infection rates.”
“It’s not a gay disease or black disease, it’s a disease based upon behavior. If people are not protecting themselves, engaging in unprotected sex, or sharing needles, then they’re at risk. It is a disease that can affect anyone,” Lewis, a white male, concluded when confronted with the question of whether the new face of AIDS is black and female.
Meghan Davies, Whitman-Walker’s Director of Community Health, was heartened by the greater access to testing the at-home HIV testing kit affords. However, Davies expressed apprehension about lay persons, non-medical professionals, administering themselves the test accurately. “I have concern about people using the at-home HIV test correctly—following the instructions properly, and continuing to test up to six months after potential exposure, which is the length of time it can take for the body to manifest antibodies to the virus,” Davies said.
How will people respond to finding out they’re HIV positive in the isolation of their own homes, without the intervention of a counselor or doctor? “Testing at home is not for everyone—each individual will respond differently to test results that can be fairly unnerving. At Whitman-Walker Health, the tests are free of charge—unlike the home kit that could run in the double-digit price range—and we have counselors on hand in case of a positive result, to help manage any accompanying fear or anger,” Davies said.
“We walk people through testing and treatment options, as well as affordable medical regiments, if they are a D.C. resident.” According to Davies, D.C. offers far greater and more affordable treatment options than Maryland and Virginia.
Xander Sun, 42, an attorney, is a gay Asian male who resides in Arlington, VA. Sun, who married his long-time partner 2 years ago in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada, though applauding the FDA’s approval of the first rapid-response, at-home HIV test, has reservations about the test’s accuracy. “I think this is an important tool in the fight against AIDS, but there is a need to improve the accuracy rate; otherwise, it could become counter-productive in the long run,” Sun said. “At the very least, I would say the kit needs to be marketed as something that can tell you whether you have a high probability of HIV; but the kit can’t tell you if you are HIV free. I would still recommend it to everyone, though, for the time being.”
Adrian Crockwell, 33, of the District and a manager of a local CVS, is a heterosexual black male in a long-term relationship. He uses monogamy and awareness of his partner’s HIV status to protect himself from HIV. “Sure, I’d use the test, but it doesn’t solve the problem of people not wanting to use condoms and women feeling too intimidated to ask their partners to take the test,” said Crockwell. “The test doesn’t screen against the plethora of other sexually transmitted diseases out here, from crabs—which I had as a youngin’—to gonorrhea and herpes, which I’ve never been infected with.” Hearkening back to Lewis’ pronouncement about the lead cause of the spread of the virus, “it’s behavior,” Crockwell chimed.
Year-after-year we have exquisite world conferences about AIDS treatment and prevention; however, will there ever be a cure for a dreaded and still highly stigmatizing disease that’s 100% preventable and highly behavior driven? “Work is being done on a vaccine; more work is focused on improving treatment. Though no cure is in sight, work is being done in that direction,” said Lewis. “Looking forward, there is developmental work on a therapeutic vaccine that would immunize people from infection and would also keep the virus in check.”
So the jury is still out on whether at-home, rapid HIV testing will address the behavioral patterns that lead to HIV transmission; however, it is crystal clear that greater access to testing is a vital and necessary weapon in the arsenal against AIDS. Knowledge is power, and in July, as in every month of the year, awareness of your status and of the tools to stop the spread of HIV is critical. Over thirty years after the birth of AIDS, we are still fighting to bring about its demise.