Dr. Rachael Ross says in-home HIV testing has advantages. Credit: Provided
The face of new HIV infections is getting younger.
“The highest infection rate is in young people between the ages of 25 and 34, followed by 13 to 24,” says Dr. Rachael Ross, a sexologist and co-host of the syndicated talk show “The Doctors.”
Friday is National HIV Testing Day, and the stats remain sobering. About 50,000 new HIV infections happen in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and 20 percent of those who carry the virus are unaware of their status. The statistics are especially startling for African-Americans, who are eight times more likely to contract the virus than their Caucasian counterparts.
Every person between the ages of 13 and 64 should be tested annually.
Many people are confused about even the basics of how it’s contracted — and it’s not through kissing.
“Blood, semen, vaginal secretions and breast milk are the only fluids that the HIV virus can be transmitted in,” Ross says.
One problem is that doctors aren’t recommending testing at annual checkups, but many people also don’t think they need to be tested because they’re not engaging in risky behavior. But that isn’t limited to multiple partners and injectable drug use, Ross says. “Risky sexual behavior is really just: Have you had sex without a condom, with somebody that you don’t know their HIV status.”
A positive diagnosis is no longer the death sentence it used to be, Ross says. A person diagnosed today who begins taking medication immediately can expect to live into his or her 60s, even 70s. But it will change their life. HIV medication can cause side effects, in some cases severe, such as nausea, fatigue and a long-term risk of kidney damage. As importantly, learning your status comes with a larger moral — and legal — obligation to society.
“From that point on, be very careful about your sexual behavior — you can be criminally charged if you have unprotected sex with someone without telling them your HIV status,” Ross says.
The promising research in the field is focused on prevention strategies, including a gel that is in clinical trials applied to the inside of the vagina that can kill the HIV virus. Another preventive measure for high-risk people is pre-exposure prophylaxis, a once-a-day pill to decrease your risk of developing HIV.
“There’s a lot of stuff coming up on the horizon, but nothing in terms of curing,” Ross says.
Condoms remain a vital barrier to infection, when used consistently and correctly. Couples tend to get comfortable, then get lax about condom use. Or they’ll take back an ex and won’t use protection even if they or their partner has been with someone else.
But changing HIV statistics comes down to people educating themselves on how the virus is contracted, Ross says. Assess the riskiness of your behavior, and consider your options for protection — including the female condom.
“You have to think of HIV protection in terms of having an arsenal of tools to protect yourself,” Ross says.
Test yourself at home
“Our biggest advance recently has been the ability to test at home,” Ross says. “The idea that you could walk into a store and test at will is a very powerful tool.”
At-home HIV tests, such as OraQuick, which provides results from an oral swab sample in 20 minutes, mean people don’t have to take time off work, the results are private, and they’re as accurate as a blood test in a doctor’s office. “It’s as confidential as you need it to be at that moment, and then you decide who you want to tell after that.”
The one caveat with any test is that there is a window after possible exposure when a test may not produce accurate results. “If you’re engaging in risky behavior, then my suggestion is get tested, then get tested again in another 3-6 months.”