Arkansas: Fear Causes Risky Delay in HIV Tests, Experts Say

Early HIV testing took top billing among a variety of awareness initiatives in Arkansas on World AIDS Day.

The state has experienced more HIV infections than the official count of 5,630, said Kevin Dedner, the Arkansas Department of Health's section chief for HIV, STDs and hepatitis C.

An estimated 350 people are diagnosed with HIV annually in Arkansas. African Americans account for 47 percent of new HIV infections and 36 percent of new AIDS cases every year in the state.

A delay in testing, and consequently diagnosis, has devastating effects, Dedner said. In about 32 percent of people who test positive in Arkansas, the disease progresses to AIDS within 12 months. Among these late testers, some 46 percent die within 12 months. Because the period from exposure to the virus to fully developed AIDS is about 10 years, the statistics suggest that many state residents are taking too long to get tested, Dedner said.

The star behind a one-woman show, "Sometimes I Cry," presented on World AIDS Day in Little Rock, called on parents to have frank conversations about HIV and the need to take precautions against it.

"It's not the hot topic, It's not sexy enough," said actress and singer Sheryl Lee Ralph. In 1990, Ralph founded the Diva Foundation to raise awareness about HIV, partly in response to the toll it took among friends and coworkers.

"I saw that, and what I witnessed on top of that was the silence that followed," Ralph said. She and husband Vincent J. Hughes, a Pennsylvania state senator, have created a Web site to encourage testing; visit www.testtogether.org.