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HIV/AIDS Resource Center for African Americans
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This is part of a ten-part article. For the next section, click here. For other sections of this article, see Table of Contents.

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.

Ron Oden
Ron Oden
"HIV testing needs to be promoted in schools, churches, big social clubs," says Ron Oden, the first African-American, openly gay mayor of Palm Springs, Calif. "Those in the entertainment industry, the sports industry, can be leaders. It needs to be a public call, but a private experience, so that they feel safe."

Minority AIDS Project's Victor McKamie agrees: "We need celebrities -- Mary J. Blige, Ice Cube, Jamie Foxx, Oprah, whoever's hot -- to say, 'Hey, I'm getting tested now. Everyone get tested!'"

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.

Gary Bell
Gary Bell
Gary Bell, of Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health, emphasizes many misconceptions about how HIV affects your body persist -- for example, that people can feel healthy but still spread the virus. "There needs to be an increased understanding that you can have HIV -- and transmit it -- for years and years before you experience symptoms. Now, many people wait [to get tested]. They think if they're relatively healthy, they're OK. But that's not true."

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.

This is part of a ten-part article. For the next section, click here. For other sections of this article, see Table of Contents.

More From This Resource Center

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