It’s not at the top of anyone’s fun things to do list (far from it!) but Thursday is National HIV Testing Day, and it isn’t a date to ignore. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in the United States alone around 1.2 million people have HIV and an estimated one in five people don’t know they’re infected. Dr. Donna Futterman, Director of the Adolescent AIDS Program at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx, New York and board member of Lifebeat: Music Fights HIV/AIDS, says everyone who is sexually active — everyone — should be tested annually.
“People aren’t totally aware,” Futterman says. “Sixty percent of teens and younger adults don’t know they are infected, and 20 percent of older adults don’t know either. This is why HIV continues to spread.”
Besides stemming the spread of infection, HIV testing means that people with the virus can be diagnosed and get the medical help they need. HIV is not the same horrifyingly deadly disease it was in the 1980s; it’s now survivable with treatment.
“We are trying for prevention and to get the message to people that you can avoid HIV. But we also want people to know that if you have it, we can help,” says Futterman.
Futterman says your doctor might not think to ask you for an HIV test, and that you should be the one to bring it up.
“Everyone should get HIV testing, but it’s just not done,” she says. “You have to think about it for yourself and protect yourself.”
You can get an HIV test that’s fast, simple, painless and anonymous (or confidential). Oral fluid tests are a quick swab in the mouth that can detect the virus in less than an hour. Blood and urine tests are also options.
One new way to get an HIV test is through a combo test. HIV combo tests (also called fourth generation tests) can provide accurate results within two weeks of exposure to HIV (normally, you have to wait three or four weeks to get an accurate diagnosis) because they can spot antigens – the actual HIV virus – as well as antibodies. The blood test is made by Abbott, which was the first lab to market an HIV test, in 1985. The tests are covered by insurance.