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The Importance of HIV Testing

What's the Problem?

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An estimated 850,000–950,000 individuals in the United States are living with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)—the virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Approximately 40,000 new HIV infections occur each year in the United States. One fourth of individuals living with HIV are unaware that they have the virus.

HIV transmission cannot be eliminated if individuals do not know their HIV status (i.e., whether they are HIV positive or HIV negative). An HIV test is the only way to determine if a person is living with the virus. Once an individual knows s/he is living with HIV, safer behaviors may be practiced to reduce or eliminate the likelihood of transmission.

Who's at Risk?

Anyone who practices risky behaviors is at risk for acquiring HIV. Risky behaviors include having unprotected sex with multiple partners or with someone of unknown HIV status and sharing injection drug needles or equipment. Anyone who practices risky behaviors can contract the virus regardless of age, sex, race, income or sexual orientation. It is important that people at risk for HIV get tested.

Historical data illustrate trends among groups who have been disproportionately affected by HIV. For example, 70% of new HIV infections each year occur among men, although women are also significantly affected. Men who have sex with men (MSM) represent the largest proportion of new infections, followed by men and women who acquire the virus through heterosexual sex and injection drug use. More than half of new HIV infections occur among African Americans, although this group represents only 12% of the U.S. population. Hispanics, who make up about 13% of the U.S. population, are also disproportionately affected by HIV. However, these trends are changing to include more women, minorities and certain regions of the United States, specifically the Southeast.

Can It Be Prevented?

HIV transmission can be prevented by eliminating risky behaviors. HIV is spread through contact with bodily fluids from someone who is infected with the virus. Risky behaviors include having unprotected sex with a partner whose HIV status is unknown or who is infected with HIV, contact with infected blood and sharing injection drug needles or equipment containing blood from someone who may be infected with the virus.

Several factors may prevent individuals from getting tested for HIV. Complacency about the need for HIV prevention may be among the strongest barriers communities face today. Although new highly active antiretroviral therapies (HAART), also known as drug "cocktails," have resulted in fewer newly reported AIDS cases and deaths, the availability of these treatment options may have lulled people into believing that preventing HIV transmission and getting tested for HIV are no longer important, despite the fact that this is a serious, chronic, and fatal disease. Another significant barrier that may prevent individuals from getting the HIV test or returning for the results is the fear of being ostracized from social communities, family or religious groups. Despite these possible barriers, it is important for at-risk individuals to get tested for HIV. There is significant evidence that, when people learn they are living with HIV, they often reduce their risk behaviors and the likelihood of transmitting HIV to others.

Bottom Line

  • An estimated one fourth of individuals living with HIV do not know they have the virus.
  • It is important for members of high-risk populations to be tested for HIV.
  • Research shows that knowledge of HIV status is linked to lower risk for acquiring and transmitting the virus.
  • Barriers exist which may prevent individuals from seeking HIV tests or learning their results

Case Example

Everett, 29, and his girlfriend, Sharlene, 28, have a two-month-old child together. On weekends, Everett likes to go out with his buddies to clubs where hooking up sexually "on the down low" (in secret) with other men is encouraged. Everett and his buddies don't identify as gay or bisexual and they all have girlfriends or wives. One night, Everett's friend tells him that he just found out that he is HIV positive and thinks he contracted HIV from one of the guys at the club. Everett realizes he and Sharlene both need to be tested. What would happen if they were both HIV positive? What if Sharlene had passed the virus to their infant? Who would take care of their baby? Everett and Sharlene get rapid HIV tests and, in about an hour, they find out the results. They are both HIV negative. When they get home, Everett tells Sharlene everything about his friend and the other men at the club. Sharlene must decide whether she wants to stay with Everett despite his infidelity, and assess her ongoing risk for acquiring HIV if Everett continues to engage in risky behaviors.

 
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  • Page last reviewed: February 14, 2011
  • Page last updated: February 14, 2011
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