It’s a lifesaver. And it’s also confidential and free.
National HIV Testing Day is fast approaching on June 27 and the National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA), sponsors of the annual event, is urging all Americans to “Take the Test, Take Control” and join them in spreading the word that the epidemic is still growing.
As part of National HIV Testing Day on June 27, Baystate Health’s HIV/AIDS Prevention and Screening Program in conjunction with New North Citizens’ Council will offer a free rapid testing clinic from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Shiloh Seventh Day Adventist Church on 797 State St. in Springfield. The special testing day event will also feature food, music, raffles and more, including a free gift card to the first 100 people tested.
“The epidemic is expanding nationally and right here locally and throughout Massachusetts, where every year there are more people living with HIV/AIDS,” said Dr. Daniel Skiest, chief, Infectious Disease Division, Baystate Medical Center.
“There are many reasons to get tested, including the fact there are very effective treatments today for people who are diagnosed early enough that can prevent any decline in the immune system and any complications associated with HIV,” he added.
In the past 10 years in Massachusetts, the number of people living with HIV/AIDS has increased annually as new HIV infection diagnoses exceeded the number of deaths among people reported with HIV/AIDS. From 2000 to 2009, the number of people living with HIV/AIDS increased by 35%.
National HIV Testing Day was developed in response to the growing number of HIV infections in communities of color and other heavily impacted communities. More than one million people are living with HIV in the United States, and approximately one in five of those are unaware of their infection. NAPWA believes HIV testing is a critical first step in taking control and responsibility over one's health.
According to Dr. Skiest, everyone who is old enough to be sexually active or use recreational drugs should be tested routinely.
“It is especially important for high-risk individuals to be tested regularly,” said Dr. Skiest.
The NAPWA lists those at high risk as:
- Sexually active younger teenagers.
- Poor women of color.
- Men who have sex with men.
- People who inject or snort drugs with others.
- Sex workers, including anyone who has to exchange sexual favors for necessities of life.
- People who live in HIV “hot spots,” sometimes only a few blocks in area, where the HIV infection rate is so high that anyone who is sexually active – no matter how careful they are – is at risk.
HIV/AIDS takes a disproportionate toll on the black and Hispanic/Latino communities, accounting for over half (54%) of the estimated number of those living with HIV/AIDS in Massachusetts, according to figures published by the Massachusetts
Department of Public Health Office of HIV/AIDS. Black residents make up 6% of the state’s population, but represent some 29% of Massachusetts residents living with HIV/AIDS, while Hispanic/Latino individuals make up 8% of the total Massachusetts population, but represent 25% of Massachusetts residents living with HIV/AIDS.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some 21% of people infected with HIV don’t know it, despite the fact it has been two decades since the first test for AIDS was introduced. And, one-third is diagnosed so late in the course of their infection that they develop AIDS within one year. While in Massachusetts, 32% of 1,822 HIV positive people diagnosed between 2007-2009 were diagnosed with AIDS within two months of learning they were HIV positive.
“The significance of this fact is that people are unfortunately still being diagnosed late in the disease, which leads to higher death rates, and often not soon enough to help them avoid transmission to others,” said Dr. Skiest. He noted these figures take on an
even greater implication based on a study released in May by the National Institutes of Health which noted that HIV therapy cuts by 96% the risk that an HIV-infected person will pass HIV to a non-infected sexual partner.
It has been 30 years since the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report noted on June 5, 1981, the first cases of what would later become known as HIV/AIDS.
Back then, an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence. But not today, noted Dr. Skiest, who said a combination of antiviral drugs or “cocktails” can help those diagnosed to lead normal and healthy lives.
“Those diagnosed early who can tolerate treatment therapy using antiviral medications can expect to live a nearly normal lifespan. Today we liken AIDS to a chronic disease like diabetes that needs to be managed effectively,” said Dr. Skiest.
Dr. Skiest noted there are many ways individuals can take action in response to HIV/AIDS, including:
- Practicing safer methods to prevent HIV.
- Deciding not to engage in high risk behaviors.
- Getting tested for HIV.
Newer “rapid tests” approved by the FDA in 2004 provide results in 20 minutes using either a blood sample or saliva swab. Positive results must be followed up with a confirmatory test that may take days or weeks before results are received.
Baystate Medical Center, in association with its neighborhood health clinics – Baystate Mason Square Neighborhood Health Clinic, Baystate Brightwood Health Center, and High Street Health Center – is the largest provider of HIV care in Western Mass. The Baystate HIV program offers services for HIV infected children and adults including HIV testing and prevention counseling, outpatient and inpatient medical care, social services coordination and clinical research trials.
Rapid testing is free through the Integrated Counseling and HIV Testing Program at Baystate Mason Square Neighborhood Health Center and Baystate Brightwood Health Center. Federal HIPPA laws make testing confidential.
For more information on HIV testing and the special Testing Day event, call 413-794-8362.