Despite the significant strides that have been made over the last 30 years in the testing, treatment and prevention of HIV, the deadly virus that causes AIDS, the majority of Americans have never been tested for HIV, putting themselves and their partners at risk for premature death, said Janet Cleveland, deputy director for Prevention Programs in the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Since 1981 when the U.S. epidemic began, 617,025 people in this country have died of AIDS, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Yet, more than half of U.S. adults, age 18 to 64, still have never been tested for HIV, said Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention.
“There are about 1.1 million people in America who are living with HIV, and about 240,000 of those persons don’t know that they are infected. That is one in five of all Americans with HIV,” Cleveland said. “HIV testing is the first critical step to ending this epidemic in America.”
It does not matter if you are heterosexual, gay, single, married or in a long-term, committed relationship, everyone should know his or her HIV status, Cleveland said. “HIV has many different faces. Love does not stop HIV, and HIV is nondiscriminatory.”
The CDC along with other government and private organizations in the United States and its territories will offer free HIV testing on Monday, June 27, which is National HIV Testing Day. To find a testing site near you, call 800-CDC-INFO or visit www.hivtest.org and enter your zip code.
“The CDC recommends that Americans 13 to 64 years of age get tested as a regular part of their medical care. Gay and bisexual men and others who are at high risk, for example anyone with new or multiple sexual partners, should get tested at least once a year,” Cleveland said.
The CDC also recommends testing for all pregnant women, because antiviral therapy can improve the mother’s health and greatly lower the chance that an HIV-infected pregnant woman will pass HIV to her infant before, during or after birth.
Most people experience flu-like symptoms for a brief time shortly after HIV infection. However, NIAID officials say people can have HIV, which destroys the immune system, for eight to 10 years without manifesting any symptoms, and they can unknowingly infect others with the virus.
Although more black people are getting tested, HIV continues to run rampant in the black community. While black people comprise about 13 percent of the U.S. population, the most recent statistics from the CDC show that nearly half, or about 510,100, of all people living with HIV in the United States are black. Additionally, nearly half of new infections each year occur among black people. Sixty-five percent of newly infected black people are men and 35 percent are women.
CDC data also show that, “Black women, the majority of whom are infected through heterosexual contact, are far more affected by HIV than women of other races. The rate of new HIV infections for black women is nearly 15 times as high as that of white women, and nearly four times as high as that of Hispanic women.”
Research indicates that a range of social and environmental factors put communities of color at greater risk for HIV including lack of access to health care, poverty, higher rates of STDs and drug use. Cleveland said some African Americans are reluctant to get tested because of confidentiality concerns, misperceptions about their personal risk and the fear of being stigmatized as a homosexual.
“One of the barriers to testing is that some people have a fear that they would test positive, and if they test positive it would be a death sentence for them,” Cleveland said. This is particularly true for African Americans, she said. However, unlike the early 1980s when people died within weeks or months after diagnosis, today the NIAID reports that due to advancements in drug treatment, HIV-infected people who are diagnosed early and treated can have a healthier life and live for decades.
“Recent studies show that for heterosexuals who get treated right away, it reduces their chances of infecting their partners by as much as 96 percent,” Cleveland said.
One of the major problems in the African American community, CDC officials say is that one-third of African Americans with HIV are diagnosed late in the course of the infection when treatment is less effective and after many opportunities to prevent the spread of the virus have been missed. In an effort to change these grim statistics, the CDC launched a $111 million, three-year initiative in 2007 to expand access to HIV testing in 25 of the U.S. areas most affected by HIV. The initiative, which focused on non-Hispanic black people, provided about 2.8 million HIV tests and diagnosed 18,432 people who were unaware of their HIV infection. African Americans accounted for 60 percent of the tests performed and 70 percent of new HIV diagnoses.
HIV is transmitted through the blood, semen or vaginal fluid. When someone is infected with HIV, the immune system produces certain antibodies. CDC advises people who have engaged in unprotected sex or other risky behavior to wait about three months before getting tested, because it can take that long after infection for the virus to become detectable through HIV antibody testing. Some people may develop HIV antibodies sooner or as late as six months, but that is rare. To be safe, individuals who take an HIV test within three months after possible exposure and test negative should get retested in another three months.