Better safe than sorry
Nearly half of all adults haven’t been tested for HIV. National HIV Testing Day aims to change that.
Travis Tanner never thought he would contract the human immunodeficiency virus. But the risky lifestyle of having unprotected sex with multiple partners caught up with him, and at age 24, his HIV-positive diagnosis changed his life. He is now one of more than 5,000 people in the local HIV/AIDS community.
“In the moment that I received the news, it was a lot of emotions all at once: guilt, fear, anger. I felt dirty, and I was definitely afraid,” Tanner said, now 30 and an activist for HIV/AIDS.
California possesses the second largest state population of cumulative AIDS cases, with almost 14.5 percent of the U.S. total. Still, more than 45 percent of adults ages 18 to 64 have never been tested for HIV, and one in five people in the United States are living with HIV but don’t know it. To address the situation, HIV/AIDS organizations have declared June 27 National HIV Testing Day.
The goal is to encourage testing for all, especially those who have never been tested or have HIV-positive partners. Harm Reduction Services, an Oak Park HIV/AIDS prevention and care center, utilizes a mobile RV testing unit to reach out in high-risk, high-traffic areas. Located in a parking lot near 20th and K streets every Second Saturday, HRS workers provide candy, free condoms, testing for HIV, hepatitis B and other sexually transmitted diseases. Intravenous drug users can also exchange used syringes for clean ones.
In addition to its presence in Midtown, the RV travels to Discovery Park, the popular gay bar The Bolt and even out to Placer County. HRS mobile-unit coordinator Dan Wilson explained that familiarity with the program makes testing less scary.
“As we spent more time here and people started to see us and saw what we were doing, they started to feel more comfortable with us,” Wilson said. “People have no problems coming in and taking an HIV test in this venue.”
Clients are led one by one into the RV where HIV testing is done orally with a cotton swab. The results are returned within 20 minutes. Ben Hudson, 30, says that he took advantage of the opportunity because of the RV’s accessibility.
“I decided to get tested because it was available and it’s here,” Hudson said. “I think everyone should be getting tested, and I haven’t gotten tested in a while.”
While the HRS mobile testing unit seeks Sacramentans on an individual basis, a larger cooperative effort launched with the Center for Aids Research, Education and Services earlier this month stresses a more finite strategy in finding those people living with HIV/AIDS. Many meetings involving CARES, HRS and Sacramento politicians culminated with the “Are You the Difference?” campaign, a multipronged effort to reduce the spread of HIV within the area through education, early testing and reducing the stigma of HIV. The goal is to eliminate new cases by 2015.
CARES coordinator Jon Benorden said that it’s important for those who have could have been in contact with an HIV-positive person either sexually or through intravenous drug use to know their status. This concept, called social-network testing, targets those who do not know their status yet but still engage in high-risk behavior. The strategy has already identified 70 HIV-positive people in the past 16 months. Benorden explains that those who are in intimate contact with HIV-positive people cannot assume they don’t have HIV because they’re not sick.
“You don’t know your status until you get tested,” Benorden said.
Unfortunately, despite the progress that has been made, the California government is seeking to cut funding from HIV/AIDS programs by up to $80 million. CARES executive director Robert Kamrath explained that the cuts will jeopardize expensive programs like drug assistance for HIV/AIDS patients.
“If the assistance doesn’t exist, [patients] don’t get their drugs,” Kamrath said.
Although the budget cuts are disheartening, optimism remains high for National HIV Testing Day. Tests will be free throughout the Sacramento area, and organizations like HRS and CARES hope to attract large crowds to the event. Reflecting on his experience with HIV, Tanner said that you can never be sure you’re 100 percent negative until you test.
“I definitely had the attitude that it would never happen to me,” Tanner said. “But it just takes one time.”