BY HANA KAJIMURA
“Should we only encourage those at risk to get tested, in response to possible infection? Or can people get tested to raise awareness and stand in solidarity with those who are at higher risk? If one in five people who are infected with HIV do not know it yet, should we spend the resources to make sure everyone knows their status?”
The website instructed me to go to the second floor of Vaden Health Center. Nothing else.
“Just to be clear, you’re here for an HIV test, right?” I felt like I was making a cameo appearance in a Harry Potter movie. As we entered the testing room, I was pulled under Harry’s invisibility cloak, into a space where I ceased to exist. Because I hadn’t given HIV*PACT any identifying information, they would not have to report my test results (A senate bill passed in 2006 requires health care providers to report even confidential HIV test results by patient name). So the moment I stepped in the testing room, I became invisible in the probing eyes of Santa Clara County. As far at the county is concerned, the next half hour never happened.
I had three options: a blood draw, OraSure, and OraQuick rapid antibody tests. The first two tests would take about a week to process, requiring a second appointment to receive my results. With the rapid test, I would know my results, with 99.6% accuracy, in about 20 minutes. All I had to do was swab my gum lines, top and bottom. Done. My counselor left the room to place the test in a lockbox.
“Can I ask you why you wanted to get tested today? Are there any specific instances that you’re worried about?” I write so much about the importance of knowing your HIV status; getting tested is a way to both ensure good health for longer and to lessen the stigma around HIV. Though I have not participated in any of the so-called “risky” behaviors that often point to HIV, I wanted to get tested to be sure, hoping my example would encourage others to do the same.
I watched a stopwatch tick slowly towards the 20-minute mark. Even in the casual, anonymous atmosphere of the HIV*PACT room, even though I had no reason to expect the worst, my stomach fluttered and my chest constricted. Regardless of what I felt my own individual odds were, all I could think about were two possible outcomes—positive and negative. A 50-50 chance. Whether you’re swabbing your own saliva on a comfy couch or having your blood drawn by doctors in pristine lab coats, the decision to get tested is an important one that carries a lot of weight. It can be life changing, and that’s scary.
The timer buzzed. My counselor left to collect the test, collect herself, and then came back to the room. “So the test shows that…” She scribbled something down on a piece of paper before finishing her sentence. I wait. She turns to me. “…you’re negative. Congratulations!” Exhale.
I tell you my story not to be dramatic. The last thing I want to do is scare people from getting tested. When I admit to my nerves, I hope to communicate the seriousness of this disease. By going to get tested, you are saying to yourself that for better or worse, you are going to see this through. You are saying that you care about your community, that you value your relationships, and that you value yourself.
Groups like HIV*PACT are making testing easy and available for college students, filling about 60-70% of their appointments. However, my counselor said that HIV*PACT does not do much to encourage Stanford students to get tested. Since there are very few positives on campus, she said most of us aren’t at risk. They would rather cement safe sex practices than create a culture where everyone wants to get tested for the sake of getting tested.
This introduces some hard questions. Should we only encourage those at risk to get tested, in response to possible infection? Or can people get tested to raise awareness and stand in solidarity with those who are at higher risk? If one in five people who are infected with HIV do not know it yet, should we spend the resources to make sure everyone knows their status?
I think these are conversations we need to have, and a front we must stand united on. We cannot further cloud a stigmatized and underrepresented disease that affects so much of our globe. So let’s start the discussion here: Where do you stand?
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