Columns / Discourse / October 2, 2008

Sexiled: HIV tests not as scary as they seem

With all the attention high school sex-ed class gave to HIV/AIDS, you would think that, as the “Team America” song goes, everyone really does have AIDS! Not so — in the United States, it’s actually pretty rare as far as STD’s go. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about one in 699 people in the U.S. are living with HIV/AIDS, with about one in 8,289 people being diagnosed each year.

That’s not to say you should forget about condoms and start shooting heroin with dirty needles — obviously, you sure as hell don’t want to be that person who gets HIV/AIDS. But you also don’t have to be paralyzed with fear about the idea — so paralyzed, that you, like many people, don’t even bother to get tested.

According to Robin Salisbury, Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Heart of Illinois HIV/AIDS center, fear is the primary reason people don’t come in to get checked up when her group comes to places like Knox College. Perhaps this is why an estimated 24-27% of people with HIV/AIDS go undiagnosed.

Many aren’t only afraid of having the disease; they’re afraid of the test as well. When people think “AIDS test” many think of needles and awkwardness. However, these days that simply isn’t true (well, at least the needles part). Although some tests do need to draw blood, Robin and her team use a test called “OraQuick Advance” which only requires you to swab your gums with some cotton. I went in and got myself tested, to see just how easy (and awkward?) HIV/AIDS testing really is.

The first half of my walk-in appointment (no need to call) was pretty uneventful — I sat, and waited. Although there are two nurses, they can get a bit busy. If you are worried about time concerns or running into your ex while in the HRC house, the best time to go is from 12-1 p.m. Regardless, you should count on it taking about an hour of your time, just in case there is a wait.

After about 20 minutes, I was called on up. Testing is done in two of the upstairs bedrooms of the HRC. The door is shut, ensuring privacy, and you sit across from the nurse at a desk.

The first thing she does is explain to you what HIV/AIDS is, how the test works, and what it does. The difference between HIV and AIDS is the number of T cells present in a person’s body. When a person gets HIV, the virus starts to transform T cells (the part of your body which fights off disease and infections) by polluting it with its own DNA. This new “zombie” T cell (aka HIV antibody) now goes around turning other T cells into the virus, and so on it spreads. HIV/AIDS medication works by stopping the HIV antibodies from spreading the disease- however, those cells that are affected never come back. As you might imagine, those with few T cells have a very hard time fighting off colds and other illness. A person with HIV may have a close to normal T cell count (1,000 T cells or so.) But once the count hits 200, it’s considered AIDS.

The swab test works by counting the number of HIV antibodies in your saliva. However, since it might take awhile for these antibodies to spread, the test might not catch HIV if you obtained it within the last three months. It’s a scary thought for anyone who is freaked out by last weekend’s mistake.

Stacy, my nurse, next asked me a wide array of questions which she copied down anonymously for the state of Illinois. Some of them were a little awkward — “Has a man you’ve had sex with ever had sex with another man?” There was also some moralizing involved — I got a tip of the hat for having stayed with the same sexual partner for so long, but the wag of the finger for having given up condoms while with him. I can only imagine how awkward it might be for those who answer yes to “Have you ever sold your body for sex?” and other such questions, but the information is important for the government to track how HIV/AIDS is (or isn’t) being spread.

Then, it was test time. The test was even less painless than I thought it would be — I just took the swab, moved it along my gum, and voila. She had said it was easy, and it certainly was.

The 20 minute wait was a bit nerve racking, though. Even I, who had no suspicions of having HIV, got a little nervous. Stacy cut down the nerves by giving me her “magic show” — that is, showing off a wide array of condoms (female, male, anal, and flavored), lubes, and how they’re used. After I had picked out a few different flavored ones to take home, it was time to read the test.

It was negative! (Phew.) Since the tests are 99.93% accurate, I have little to worry about. Had the test had been positive, they would have sent it to their labs for a re-test (which takes two weeks) as well as set me up with a counselor to guide me through the beginnings of life with HIV.


Cost free needle free HIV/AIDS Testing

Thursday, Oct. 9th

12 pm to 3:30 pm

In the Human Rights Center

Come in if…

– you’ve had unprotected sex (including oral!)

– shared dirty needles

– had blood-to-blood contact

– want some free condoms

– you’re curious and want to learn more!

For emergency testing, call (309) 671-8457 ex. 1049

Or contact the Knox County Health Department

Author’s note: Last year I went to the last HIV/AIDS testing date available, did an interview, and then promptly realized there wouldn’t be any more TKS’s published that year. Whoops! As a result, the column had to wait until this year, and there may be some old information. Nevertheless, I have double checked what I could, and most if not all the information presented should be correct.

Christy Reuter

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