Take the Test

June 27 is National HIV Testing Day; do you know your status? Donna Hubbard McCree, Ph.D., associate director of health equity for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), explains why it’s so critical that you do.

1. How often should African-Americans be tested for HIV?

The CDC guideline is that everyone should take an HIV test at least once in his or her lifetime. Others who have particular behaviors should have screenings more frequently: If you’ve had unprotected sex with a partner whose status is unknown, if you’ve had multiple sexual partners, or if you’ve shared needles or syringes, we recommend an HIV test once a year. Talk to your health care provider about how often you should be tested. It’s important to know your status—it’s the first step in protecting yourself.

2. Since the first AIDS cases were reported in the United States in the early 1980s, haven’t those with HIV become less stigmatized?

Yes, but we still have a lot of work to do. Stigma is what keeps some people from getting tested in the first place. That’s why we [adults] have to talk openly about it among ourselves and to our children. We have to create a safe place for the discussion to happen in our homes and places of worship. We have to confront homophobia.

3. Are African-Americans still the group within the U.S. that’s most impacted by HIV?

Yes. African-Americans make up 14 percent of the population, but we account for nearly half of those living and dying with this disease. Nearly a quarter of a million African-Americans with AIDS have died. Every part of our community has felt the impact: young, old, male, female, gay, heterosexual. HIV is the third-leading cause of death among Black men and women aged 35 to 44.

4. Why ha s our community been hit so hard?

There are myriad factors. There’s a high background prevalence of HIV among African-Americans, meaning that our infection rates are greater overall, and since Blacks tend to have sex with each other, just as those in other racial groups do, our chances of coming into contact with HIV are higher. In addition, Blacks have higher rates of other sexual transmitted infections (STIs); having certain STIs can significantly increase the chance of contracting HIV. There are also social and environmental factors and issues with access to care. We know that if you don’t have the means to see a doctor, you may not get an HIV test or get treatment until later. A fifth of African-Americans are not insured; a quarter live in poverty.

5. How can we finally end this epidemic in our community?

HIV is completely preventable, and we have to insist on safer sex. After abstinence, using a latex condom is the second-best way to protect yourself. If you’re sexually active, use a condom correctly and consistently—that means every time you have sex. Also, make mutual monogamy a priority in your relationships. Be aware of your own status as well as the status of your partner, and keep an open dialogue with him or her. Earlier this year, the CDC launched the Take Charge. Take the Test. campaign, a reminder that we all have the power to take control of our health by protecting ourselves against HIV. To learn more, visit actagainstaids.org.

Read more in the June 2012 issue of EBONY Magazine on page 75.