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National HIV Testing Day Is June 27, 2004

by Phill Wilson,
Executive Director of the Black AIDS Institute
 

I tested HIV positive almost 20 years ago.  I was scared and angry, and I struggled with despair and hopelessness at the news.  I never fully believed then that two decades later Iíd still be alive Ė let alone happy and, all things considered, in good health. I am living proof that an HIV positive diagnosis is no longer an automatic death sentence.

So if AIDS is no longer a death sentence, why are so many Black folks still dying from the disease?  The answer is not enough of us are getting tested early enough.  Taking an HIV test is still an emotionally charged experience Ė so much that a third of people who get tested with standard tests never come back for their results. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 25% of people living with HIV in this country donít know their HIV status.  Theyíve either never been tested or never found out their test results.

To our credit, Blacks are actually getting tested -- but still not often enough, or soon enough.  More than half of Black people are diagnosed with AIDS within a year of testing HIV positive. Those people are not only missing out on the opportunity to receive treatment that could prolong their lives and keep them healthier (you canít get treated, if you donít know you are infected), but they could be unknowingly infecting their partners as well.

I think there are two things at work that keep us from finding out our HIV status early in the course of infection. The first is that those of us who are at risk for HIV either donít know or donít believe that we could become infected, so we never get tested. The same basic guidelines apply to us as any other group on this point Ė if you are sexually active and you are not in an absolutely mutually monogamous relationship (with a person who is not infected with HIV), or if you inject drugs or have sex with someone who does, you are at risk.  Itís as simple as that.  Now, read the above line again and do an honest assessment of your behavior and sexual and drug using history.  Do you need to get tested for HIV?

The second factor is the ongoing stigma in our neighborhoods and communities that being tested for HIV mean youíve done something wrong. We have to make regular HIV testing a routine part of our health care, whether at a doctorís office or through a free community or health department program. We cannot make people feel they must go to another zip code or even state to get an HIV test, because far too many people will just avoid going altogether.

Getting tested for HIV has never been easier, faster or more convenient. New rapid HIV tests can give you a highly accurate answer in as few as 20 minutes, using only a small finger prick of blood, similar to a sugar test, and frequently at no cost to you. If you prefer, you can also get or-al or urine test results back in about a week.  Soon, there will even be a rapid oral HIV test.

But because new testing technologies donít matter if we donít use them, more regular and more widespread HIV testing is critical.  You may have heard me say that before, but Iím going to keep saying it until everybody listens!

When I went out with the Ladies First tour earlier this spring and raffled off concert tickets to thousands of folks who had been tested, I saw some powerful examples of Black people who are changing the way their family and friends think about HIV. Moms and daughters came and were tested together. So did groups of young adults, sorority sisters and pick-up teams. This is a sign of important progress.

Iím also especially gratified to see how many community groups and black-owned businesses are teaming up for National HIV Testing Day, on June 27, to sponsor special outreach in Black communities. In Atlanta, the local chapter of the National Council of Negro Women will hold an event with live performances and carnival games as well as HIV and STD testing and counseling. The National Urban League Young Professionals are doing a national day of service with AIDS groups on June 26.  At the Kansas City Urban Expo, health officials are teaming up with the B-Boy film festival. And because Testing Day is on a Sunday this year, many places of worship, such as the Upper Room Bible Church in New Orleans, will be offering testing and counseling after services.

Black-owned media have also contributed coverage and free advertising to this effort. And I am happy to announce that Magic JohnsonĖowned movie theaters across the country will be running public service announcements about testing and in some cases offering incentives to get tested. You can call the CDCís HIV testing hotline at 800-342-2437 or go to www.hivtest.org to find out where and when you can get tested. You can also learn more about HIV at the Black AIDS Institute website, www.blackaids.org. 

HIV testing is free, painless, quick, confidential and easy.  So, no more excuses!  Knowing your HIV status can save your life and the lives of your loved ones.  Hey, I have an idea.  After you get tested, write me ) and let me know how it went.  I look forward to hearing from you.  Conquering the fear and stigma around such seemingly simple efforts as getting an HIV test will not happen overnight, but working together we can do something to help Ė we can get tested in our community, for our community.

 

Black AIDS Institute
1833 W. 8th St, Suite 200
Los Angeles, CA 90057-4257
Tel: 213-353-3610
Fax: 213-989-0181
Website: 
www.blackaids.org


Phill Wilson - Video Interview

AIDS Activist Phill Wilson Talks About Fighting AIDS and Urban Myths in the African-American Community

Originally conducted by Black Entertainment Television. [View Video]


 

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