Today, June 27, is National HIV Testing Day in the United States. It is an observance that is now recognized in many countries around the globe. Why set aside a special day for something that should be a routine part of medical care for people at risk of getting HIV? Because ending the stigma of HIV and creating multiple opportunities for testing is an urgent need in our effort to create an AIDS-free generation.
In the late 1980s, many of my friends had died of AIDS or were very sick. The decision to get an HIV test was not an easy one. But in 1986, I went for an HIV test at Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, DC, because it was important for me to know my HIV status. This was at a time when there were few treatment options, and the testing process involved a long and scary wait for your results. In 1995, I worked with my colleagues at the National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA) and we created National HIV Testing Day. This effort was designed to help reduce the stigma of HIV testing and to normalize it as a component of regular health screening. At that time, there was a lot of fear about testing. Because there were few treatments, many thought it unnecessary. People who were known to be HIV positive were subjected to being fired from their jobs or becoming victims of violence. At NAPWA, we believed it was important to confront this situation by encouraging people to “Take the Test, Take Control.” We also believed that the more of us who stood up, the less the world would be able to ignore the epidemic.
Last week, members of parliament in Zimbabwe provided the type of leadership needed in the United States and worldwide to end the stigma of HIV testing. Over 47 legislators, and 60 of their staff, underwent voluntary counseling and public testing for HIV in an effort to encourage other citizens to follow suit. As a result, Blessing Chebundo, chairman of the Zimbabwe Parliamentarians Against AIDS, told SW Radio Africa that, “181 people went through the doors for testing, and 23 men underwent circumcision (proven to reduce the risk of HIV infection).”
Today, there are dozens of treatments available to keep people with HIV healthy. There is excitement also about the progress we are making in biomedical prevention interventions such as circumcision, PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and treatment as prevention. HIV testing itself is easier and quicker with results available in 20 minutes. The promise of these new opportunities begins with everyone knowing their HIV status without fear of discrimination, stigma or violence.
To learn more about National HIV Testing Day, visit the website here.