Friday, March 23, 2012

Rebecca Gets Tested: Women's HIV Awareness Month

A few weeks ago, three of my college housemates and I were hanging out in our living room as we usually do on Sunday evenings.  Only on this night, our conversation took a turn from what is usually lighthearted and playful, to a non-joking matter entirely.  The three of them had confessed that night to never having gotten an STD or HIV screening in their lives.  I was shocked.  And before I knew it, I was scolding them as a mother does; yelling at them about the dangers of not getting checked and demanding that they make appointments first thing in the morning.

Before bed that night, I thought to myself: How could these girls, all twenty-two years of age and older, go so long without getting checked?  To me, it seemed like sheer neglect of oneself.  Since I was sixteen years old, I’ve been making yearly trips to my doctor for routine check-ups.  I also found myself in her office sporadically over the years; some times at the end of a relationship, other times, out of the simple need to be “safe.”  Either way, I was on top of my health. Or so I thought.

Long before I attended Sundae Sermon at El Museo Del Barrio on Sunday, February 26th, I was asked by my GET DOWN supervisor if I’d ever gotten an HIV screening done.  The answer was no.  I visited my doctor every year, was an HIV screening truly necessary?  The answer to this one is yes.  I, along with many people, believed that such check-ups test for HIV, when in fact, they don’t.  A standard STD test will check for a number of sexually transmitted diseases, but won’t check for HIV unless you specifically ask for that screening to be done.  And by the time Sunday rolled around, I knew I couldn’t leave El Museo until I had gotten my first HIV screening.

Up until that point, I had been so sure that I was healthy and free of every sexually transmitted disease imaginable.  After all, I was on top of my sexual health better than anyone.  But words cannot describe the feeling that overwhelmed me once I sat down in that chair.  Just moments prior, I was more than certain of what the test would read.  It hadn’t occurred to me until that very moment that a negative result was not guaranteed.  This was my first time getting tested, so in actuality, I had no idea what the outcome would be.

An HIV screening can be conducted various ways.  I had a rapid oral HIV test, in which a small swab was lightly scrapped along the walls of my mouth and then placed aside for approximately 15 minutes to produce a result.  When a person is infected with HIV, their body responds by producing special proteins that fight infection, called antibodies. The oral HIV test is designed to look for these antibodies in the saliva.  If antibodies are detected, it means that person has tested preliminarily positive for HIV.  That’s when a tester will draw blood in order to submit for a confirmatory test.  If that test comes back positive, the person being tested is HIV positive, for sure.  The confirmatory test might also come back HIV negative.

After my mouth was swabbed, I had to wait 15 minutes before I could find out the result.  During that time, the woman who administered the test questioned me in great detail about my past sexual experiences.  My answers are then included in reporting to the Center For Disease Control (CDC) for their research reports.  Each question caused my heart to beat faster and faster, for I knew that each honest answer put me at greater risk of contracting this virus.  Halfway through the questioning, I started to get mad at myself; mad at a poor decision I had made one night, mad that this was my first time getting tested, mad that I had thought I was invincible to something deadly.  I was not as responsible as I had thought and now I feared the results.  What if it came back positive? What would I do? With each minute, I grew more and more anxious and after what felt like an eternity, I got my results. Negative.

I let out a huge sigh of relief.  For years I had lived under the assumption that I was clean and HIV negative, but hadn’t known for sure until this very moment.  The yearly trips to my doctor were not enough because I had never asked for an HIV screening to be done before.  But now I knew and knowing is truly one of the greatest feelings in the world.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommend that all people between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested for HIV, regardless of whether you think you’re at risk or not.  According to the CDC’s 2009 statistics, women comprised 51% of the US population and accounted for 23% of new HIV infections.  According to the CDC 2009 report by age, the age group 20-24 accounted for the highest rate of new HIV diagnoses, at 36.7 per 100,000 population.  Those figures have increased from 2006 among those aged 15-19 and 20-24.  My friends and I fall into that age group.

March is Women and Girls HIV Awareness Month, which is coordinated by the Office on Women's Health (OWH), within the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  And because getting tested for HIV is this easy, there is no excuse for anyone not to.  I am sure the living room conversations will be a little more interesting at my college apartment. 

Just remember: No matter how you get down, protect yourself. Get tested.

To see more photos of GET DOWN at Sundae Sermon El Museo Del Barrio Kickoff:

--Rebecca Florcyzk
GET DOWN Youth Blogger In Chief