The theme for National HIV Testing Day, Doing It My Way, Testing for HIV, underscores that there are many reasons to be tested for HIV and many ways to get the test. You can be tested at your doctor's office the next time you go in or you can find testing in other settings as well. In many communities, free or low cost HIV testing can be found at clinics, community-based organizations, pharmacies, mobile vans, or at special testing events. You can even buy a test kit at the pharmacy, take the test at home, send it in, and get your results over the phone. With all of these options, today it is easy to test the way that is right for you. Read stories on social media about why and how people make HIV testing part of their lives using #DoingItMyWay or #HaciendoloAMiManera.
This year's theme also brought to my mind the many reasons people have for getting an HIV test. For example, as part of their annual wellness check, when beginning a new relationship, when considering conceiving a child, when starting pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), or when they are worried about a possible exposure to HIV. Whatever the reason, it is always good to know your HIV status. That knowledge allows you to make decisions and take actions that give you control over your health.
For people living with HIV, we know that starting HIV treatment as early as possible is the key to staying healthy. People who start treatment early in the course of infection and stay on it are likely to live almost as long as their peers and avoid the illnesses and opportunistic infections that were common before effective treatments were available.
An Important New Reason to Get an HIV Test
As we prepare for the 2018 observance of National HIV Testing Day on June 27, I am excited about one of the newest reasons on the long list of reasons to get tested: the prevention benefits of HIV treatment that suppresses viral load.
Over the past couple of years, new scientific evidence from several large studies has led to a profound change in our understanding of the benefits of effective HIV treatment that lowers HIV viral load in the blood down to undetectable levels. Today, this evidence gives us an important new reason to get tested: if you know you are positive, take HIV medication as prescribed, and achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load, you have effectively no risk of transmitting HIV to your sexual partners. Multiple research studies have found no case of HIV that could be genetically linked back to someone with an undetectable viral load.
Nobody wants to find out that they have HIV. That fear of testing positive can hold some people back from getting tested; but this new evidence strengthens the reasons to get tested and know your status, whether positive or negative. Our understanding of what it means to have HIV and people's reactions to someone living with HIV are changing rapidly. Knowing that people who have an undetectable viral load have effectively no risk of transmitting HIV sexually is making a big difference. It is changing how many people who are HIV negative think about being in relationships with someone who is positive, and it is changing how many people living with HIV see themselves. It has taken a burden off of many people living with HIV who worried about the potential risk of transmitting HIV if their preferred safer sex method failed.
Testing Remains Important for HIV-negative Individuals
Of course, testing also provides powerful information to help HIV-negative individuals stay negative. It can reinforce the steps that they've taken to avoid HIV infection and provide peace of mind. It can also be an opportunity to learn more about prevention tools and strategies that can protect them from HIV, like pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and other prevention services. With the support of primary care providers, testing counselors, pharmacists, peer educators, or others involved with HIV testing, individuals can then select which prevention tool(s) are right for them to use to remain HIV-negative, as well as discuss whether or when they should be tested next.
CDC recommends that individuals with certain risk factors -- such as having more than one sex partner since their last HIV test or having sex with someone whose sexual history they don't know -- should get tested annually, and sexually active gay and bisexual men may benefit from more frequent testing (e.g., every 3 to 6 months).
Testing Key to Reaching National HIV Goals
About 1.1 million people are living with HIV in the United States. However, 1 in 7 do not know they are infected, so they aren't accessing the care they need to protect their health and are at risk of transmitting the virus to others. Helping them learn their status is key to achieving our national goals for improving health outcomes among people living with HIV and reducing new HIV infections. Better health outcomes depend on knowing one's HIV status and accessing treatment to prevent disease progression. In turn, that helps reduce new HIV infections since those who have their virus under control through treatment have effectively no risk of transmitting it to their sexual partners.
Test Today, Educate and Encourage Others
So, on National HIV Testing Day, you can do it your way, for your own reason(s). It doesn't matter what your reason is, just get tested for HIV! If you don't get tested today, make yourself a promise to get tested in the next 30 days. Use the HIV.gov locator to find a testing site near you. Encourage others to do it their way, too.
We need to normalize HIV testing and encourage others, especially those who may be at high risk for infection, to get tested. Finally, please help share more widely this newest reason, perhaps the 87th good reason for getting an HIV test: what we know about the powerful health-protecting and transmission-preventing benefits of today's effective HIV treatments that suppress HIV viral loads to undetectable levels. What you share may motivate someone to seek a test and get the powerful information that the results provide for their health.
Richard Wolitski, Ph.D., is director of the Office of HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policy, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
[Note from TheBody: This article was originally published by HIV.gov on June 27, 2018. We have cross-posted it with their permission.]