Note: Today President Obama issued a statement on National HIV Testing Day
Thirty years ago, at the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, there was no test for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. For many, there was only the long and worrisome wait for the signs of infection. Once those signs appeared, no treatment for the virus was available. I personally cared for many, many patients in this era, and I am thankful that those days are over. Today, HIV testing is accurate, widely available, and often free—and treatment can help people living with HIV enjoy long, healthy lives, especially when they get diagnosed early.
The good news is that more people are being tested for HIV than ever before. It is estimated that almost 83 million American adults between 18 and 64 have been tested for HIV, as of 2009. That’s an increase of more than 11 million from 2006 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) recommended that HIV testing become a routine part of medical care for adults and adolescents.
However, more than half of American adults still have never taken an HIV test. That’s why we need to spread that message that HIV testing saves lives and why today, June 27th, National HIV Testing Day, is an important reminder for us to reach as many people as possible with this life-saving information. Founded by the National Association of People with AIDS, National HIV Testing Day (NHTD) focuses on promoting HIV testing and early diagnosis of HIV across the United States. The day’s theme “Take the Test. Take Control.” emphasizes that knowing one’s HIV status – whether it’s positive or negative – is empowering.
Research shows that once people get tested, those who are HIV positive take steps to protect their partners from HIV. Testing HIV negative is also beneficial - as it empowers individuals to take stock of – and modify – risky sexual behaviors so that they can remain HIV negative.
If you are HIV positive – what you don’t know CAN hurt you – and others. A third of those with HIV are tested very late and develop AIDS within a year of their HIV diagnosis, which may be too late to utilize the full benefits of treatment. Approximately 17,000 Americans with AIDS still die each year. Too many new HIV infections in the United States occur because people who don’t know they are HIV infected transmit the virus to others.
HIV testing is a significant part of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy(NHAS), the nation's first-ever comprehensive coordinated HIV/AIDS plan. This plan focuses on reducing infections, increasing access to care and improving health outcomes, and reducing HIV-related health disparities.
The federal government continues to make investments to provide HIV testing to those at risk for HIV. CDC initiated the Expanded Testing Initiative in October 2007. Findings from the Initiative were published last week in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The $111 million effort provided funding for health departments in 25 of the nation’s hardest-hit areas. As a result of these efforts, CDC-supported health departments were able to offer 2.8 million HIV tests in just three years.
As a result of the Expanded Testing Initiative, more than 18,000 Americans living with HIV learned their HIV status for the first time. Approximately three-quarters of the individuals who were newly diagnosed were successfully linked to HIV care, of those for whom follow up data were available. Increasing HIV testing is among our country’s top health priorities as testing not only saves lives, it saves resources. Each HIV infection averted saves an estimated $367,000 (2009 dollars) in lifetime medical costs.
On this 17th annual National HIV Testing Day, we thank the many, many individuals, organizations, and agencies who are taking action to make sure everyone knows that HIV testing is an important step in stopping HIV infections and creating health for our friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors.
To locate an HIV testing site near you, text your Zip Code to “KNOWIT” (566948), visit www.HIVtest.org, or call 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636). To find local HIV resources, including testing, housing, and substance abuse treatment, family planning, and mental health services, visit the HIV/AIDS Prevention and Services Provider Locator tool.
Thomas R. Frieden, MD, MPH is the Director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention