Getting an HIV test is an easy way to take care of the most important things in life – your health, the health of your loved ones and the health of your community. And getting an HIV test is never easier than it is in June.
HIV advocates urge everyone to get tested on National Caribbean-American HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on June 8, or during the week of activities surrounding the 20th Annual National HIV Testing Day on June 27.
One out of every six people who have the virus don’t know they have it, and they are the most likely to give HIV to others, according to the Florida Department of Health (DOH). But officials say that once people learn they have the virus, they become much more likely to take precautions – such as using condoms during sex – that can prevent HIV from spreading to others.
“HIV testing is the touchstone of prevention. We encourage all sexually active people to test at least twice a year,” says Christopher Bates, social services manager in the HIV Prevention Program at the DOH in Broward County.
What’s more, research shows that HIV-positive people who take their medications faithfully can lower the amount of virus in their bodies to almost zero. If they do so, they reduce the chance of spreading HIV to others by 95 percent.
“Taking your medications properly is a good way to combat HIV in the community,” says Marlene LaLota, state HIV prevention director for the DOH.
The virus has hit the black community hard in South Florida, which is an epicenter of HIV/AIDS in the nation. The DOH estimates that about 24,000 people of color are living with HIV in South Florida. Of those, more than 5,700 were born in Haiti, about 750 were born in Jamaica and more than 350 were born elsewhere in the Caribbean.
An estimated 125,000 people in Florida are living with HIV/AIDS; 48 percent of them are black.
To mark HIV Testing Day, screenings will be given at dozens of locations in South Florida. The test takes only a few minutes and often is free. It’s painless and as simple as a mouth swab (you get the results in two weeks) or a finger-stick blood test (results in 20 minutes).
“Taking the test is quick and it’s painless,” LaLota says. “Do it for yourself, do it for your family. Getting tested is the responsible thing to do.”
HIV tests may be done confidentially (your name is kept in a medical file but not revealed by the testing organization) and may be done anonymously (you are identified only by a number and you do not give your name). Not all testing organizations handle your identity in the same way. Ask in advance.
Even in the small chance that someone tests positive, newer medications can help people lead healthy lives for decades without progressing to AIDS. Today’s HIV drugs are easier to tolerate and carry fewer side effects than in the past, Bates says.
The annual theme of HIV Testing Day is “Take the Test, Take Control.” Knowing one’s HIV status is a big plus in taking control of your well-being, Bates says. Many organizations that give HIV tests in June also offer other kinds of health screenings, such as for diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol.
“It’s an opportunity to get yourself checked and make sure you are OK,” LaLota says.
More information and testing locations: wemakethechange.org or hivtest.org or call DOH-Broward HIV Prevention Program at 954-467-4700, ext. 5660.
Bob LaMendola is in community affairs at the Florida Department of Health in Broward County. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org