|HIV testing has grown in sophistication and accessibility, which helps people understand their status earlier.|
It’s been over 20 years since the United States observed its first National HIV Testing Day on June 27, 1995.
But because Black people are still contracting the virus at higher rates than other groups, advocates say, folks still need to get tested.
“The thing that we know about HIV is that the earlier you know your HIV status, the longer you can live. That is a fact,” said Rae Lewis-Thornton, an activist who’s been advocating for HIV prevention and care for over four decades. “Testing is even more incredibly important because you can’t get treatment if you don’t know your HIV status.”
About 560,000 people in the U.S. discovered they contracted the virus in the 1980s when the epidemic started. Black people were among those most affected. Sadly, not much has changed.
Today, African Americas account for just over 40% of all new HIV diagnoses. Over 290,000 of us have progressed to stage three HIV, developed AIDS, and died since the 1980s, according to 2016 statistics.
Lewis-Thornton, who found out she was living with HIV after donating blood in 1987, said technology has become so advanced, “we really can save someone’s life.
“We’re squandering this technology. It took them almost five years to develop an HIV antibody test. We’ve come a long way from 1985 when testing became available. Then, it wasn’t even available for general testing. It was available for blood supply and so the point is that we needed this technology. We have it and now we need to put it to use.”
Sherry Molock, a George Washington University associate professor who examines the development of HIV prevention programs in Black faith-based communities, agreed that HIV research has advanced.
“With the advent of new medications like PrEP (Pre-exposure prophylaxis), HIV is now a manageable disease, but it’s still important that people get tested regularly and engage in safe sex behaviors,” Molock said in an email to Word In Black.
Molock, who also researches HIV risk in sexual minority men or gay and bisexual men, says while rates of infection are decreasing among this group, “HIV is still disproportionately impacting Black youth. Black SMM is less than 1% of the U.S. population but represents 26% of new HIV cases.”
It’s no secret that Black women are also disproportionately impacted by the virus. Despite comprising less than 15% of the U.S. female population, Black cisgender women account for nearly 60% of new diagnoses. And Black trans women account for 46% of new diagnoses among transgender women.
Molock believes it’s important for Black folks to get tested, and if they’re HIV-positive, to get treated, but she also recognizes the individual and structural barriers to doing both. “Stigma, fear of disclosure of sexual identity, concerns around violation of confidentiality, costs of tests, and location of services” are just a few of the reasons why some people find it harder to access health care.
“Folks may not realize that HIV risks are higher in both Black heterosexual and LGBTQ youth, and that homonegativity beliefs and policies increase risk,” she said. “Changes have to be made not only at the individual level but at community and structural levels as well.”