2. HIV Testing: Better Not to Wait, Lest You Be Late
Get tested, get tested, get tested: Many of our movers and shakers say it to anyone who will listen, but they represent only a small number of the United States' political, social and medical leaders, too many of whom remain silent on the issue. Without a diagnosis, people won't seek life-saving medical treatment -- or know that they may need to change their sexual behaviors to protect others.
Members of tight-knit African-American communities should know their status, adds Dr. Beny Primm of Addiction and Research Treatment Corporation. "If we have many people infected with HIV, where people are sexually involved with one another almost exclusively, you have rapid spread of the disease. You see it in the ghettos of Harlem, East New York, Bedford-Stuyvesant." Studies show that in general, once people know they have HIV, they take measures to protect their primary sexual partners from infection.
In fact, many blacks with HIV do not get tested until an AIDS-related sickness lands them in the emergency room. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 56 percent of all "late testers" -- people who develop AIDS within a year of getting tested -- are African Americans.
And studies show that the best predictor of how well you will do on HIV medications -- and ultimately how long you will live with HIV -- is the health of your immune system when you start treatment. The drugs actually allow your immune system to rebuild itself, but only if you catch the disease in time. After a certain amount of damage has been done, the meds can work to control the virus, but not to reboot your system. As a result, late testers tend to die from AIDS much faster than early testers.
What you can do: Know your status by getting tested, and make sure your friends, family and sexual partners do the same. Finding out that you have HIV can be very painful, but as the HIVers in our Profiles in Courage testify, it can also be a kick in the ass for some people who need to take more responsibility for their health and their life.
And take note: The CDC is on a full-court press to make HIV testing a routine part of medical care. While this is good in one respect -- more people will learn about their status -- some advocates fear that due to budget cuts, pre- and post-test counseling may not always be available. Everyone who tests positive needs support, information and other resources. There's nothing "routine" about an HIV diagnosis, even in the age of routine testing.
That is one more reason to get tested as soon as possible: You can choose a local clinic or AIDS service organization that offers counseling and care. Find out more about testing at The Body's HIV Testing section. And check out the National Association of People With AIDS' National HIV Testing Day Web site.