HIV infection is on the upswing in many American cities and on this World AIDS Day health care activists in Philadelphia are like-minded in their advice to sexually active people: Get tested for the virus.
Philadelphia is the 28th riskiest city in the U.S. for HIV, according the most recent data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Many AIDS activists in the city agree that preventing the spread of HIV through education and early detection is critically important. They add that early detection is hampered by the stigma attached to HIV testing.
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ActionAIDS changed its name to ActionWellness last summer to deal with that stigma as well as emphasize that it offers “overall health screenings for diabetes, high blood pressure and a whole range of problems that include HIV,” said Executive Director Kevin J. Burns.
ActionWellness further tackles the stigma problem by being more sympathetic to their clients privacy.
“We used to do pre-test counseling about why patients thought they were at risk, be it sex lives or drug use that, in hindsight, was as barrier to treatment,” Burns said. “Who wants to give up all that info?”
The nonprofit organization also participates in health fairs and social events to educate people about the importance of testing.
“We’re reaching outwards,” Burns said.
A start-up called GetTested.com attacks the stigma problem by delivering at-home test kits for sexually transmitted diseases.
“Everyone who is sexually active is at risk of becoming infected and the ability to screen yourself, any time, from the privacy and comfort of your own home without copays, gives individuals peace of mind and ensures they are not spreading STDs to new partners,” said GetTested Manager Hannahmae Dela Cruz.
Dr. Helen Koenig, medical director of the I Am… program at Philadelphia Fights, adds that there also exists the stigma of adhering to a HIV treatment regimen.
“You have to offer, as we do with our Youth Health Empowerment Project, a robust program of intensive adherence and support…. and troubleshoot all barriers to adherence,” she said. “If there is a stigma about refills or keeping large bottles of pills in their home, we have medication delivered here and make it convenient without being stigmatizing or anxiety inducing.”
Philly AIDS Thrift not only raises money for AIDS charities, but also offers free, discreet HIV testing on the second floor of it store on South Fifth Street.
“The idea of having it in this non-traditional space is a way to normalize it as for many folks testing isn’t on their radar or they hate going into a clinical environment,” said Philly AIDS Thrift co-founder Christina Kallas-Saritsoglou. “We’re trusted in that community and always just try to find new ways to be a piece of the puzzle of healing and good work.”