It was announced this week that the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has partnered with Us Helping Us, a group of volunteers providing holistic health information for those living with HIV, to provide the first national at-home HIV testing program.
For the first time in its history, the HRC will be pledging to ship a minimum of 5,000 free at-home HIV testing kits directly to the doors of those who need them most: People who live far from testing clinics (mainly in rural areas); those unable to travel for various reasons; those without health insurance; and communities disproportionately impacted by HIV, such as lower-income people, Black and Latinx gay men, as well as bisexual and transgender women of color.
The kits will be dispersed over the course of a year. And in addition to the kits — which include an OraQuick oral swab (around $40), condoms, lubricants and a test information card — requesters will receive a referral to PrEP providers in their area as well as to an online service page.
“Today, Black and Latinx gay men and transgender people are still dying of HIV and dying at disproportionately high rates,” HRC president Alphonso David said in a statement. “Although we have made significant advances in addressing HIV, some of our communities remain ravaged by it. With this program and working closely with our partners, we endeavor to stop the spread of HIV particularly in communities of color.”
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According to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention, there were 36,801 new HIV diagnoses in the United States in 2019. Of that number, 15,305 (42 percent) were Black and 10,494 (29 percent) were Latino.
If the current rates continue, 1 in 2 Black gay and bisexual cisgender men, and 1 in 4 Latinx gay and bisexual men, will contract HIV in their lifetime, according to the CDC.
Though gay and bisexual men make up the vast majority of new diagnoses every year (69 percent in 2019), it’s important to note that straight men and women have never been immune to contracting HIV. In fact, straight women accounted for 16 percent (5,836) of new HIV diagnoses in 2019.
Of the near 1.2 million people living with HIV in the United States today, about 1 in 4 are women, according to amfAR, the foundation for AIDS research.
“Being a cisgendered Black woman living with HIV, being a community health educator and being a sister who cares about her tribe, I’m excited to be a part of this,” Alecia Tramel, Florida state lead at the Positive Women’s Network, a nationwide community of women living with HIV aiming to empower and educate each other, tells Yahoo Life. “More women are expected to receive the kits and know their status: Get tested, know your status. Knowing is half the battle.”
Even while HIV education continues to expand, a disappointing 13 percent of those living with HIV in America don’t even know they’re HIV positive, according to HIV.gov. That’s because they haven’t taken it upon themselves to get tested — something this program hopes to redirect.
The reason why people aren’t getting tested, especially young people, which make up a high number of those who’ve never been tested, is complex. For many, it’s tied to stigma, fear of a positive diagnosis and systemic oppression.
“There are a number of barriers that people of color and trans persons face when considering access to testing,” Deondre B. Moore of the Prevention Access Campaign tells Yahoo Life. “These include, but are not limited to: cost, transportation, racism, homophobia and transphobia. With at-home testing kits that are free, persons can now get tested in the comfort of their own homes without worrying about any of the barriers.”
The Prevention Access Campaign is the organization behind U=U (undetectable equals untransmittable), a global scientifically proven consensus that states when a person living with HIV is on treatment and their viral load (the amount of virus in the body) is suppressed, it is impossible for them to transmit HIV to others.
While most activists are celebrating the benefits that come with at-home testing kits, there are still problems that can easily be overlooked, especially for those dealing with mental health problems or who are in abusive relationships.
“I do have a lot of questions about what happens when someone tests positive,” Jennie Smith-Camejo, communications director at PWN-USA, tells Yahoo Life. “I have heard plenty of horror stories from women living with HIV who were told their results in doctor visits or testing services who were not properly counseled, reassured or connected to services or even HIV care, which is inexcusable.”
“In the best scenarios,” Smith-Camejo continues, “I've heard the person testing positive is counseled compassionately, told about all their treatment options, linked to care right away and are told about support groups. I have some concerns that someone testing positive in the privacy of their own home won't have access to that kind of support — and that for someone already experiencing depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions, getting that kind of diagnosis alone could be dangerous.”
While HRC does offer an online service page to help people identify options for care, access to the internet, unfortunately, is still a factor, notes Smith-Camejo. Furthermore, for women especially, the potential for intimate partner violence should be of the utmost concern.
“Women experiencing intimate partner violence are more likely to acquire HIV, and women living with HIV are more likely to face intimate partner violence,” Smith-Camejo explains. “Sharing an HIV diagnosis with an abusive partner tends to be a particularly dangerous moment for women, as women are more likely to get tested and diagnosed first and then get blamed by the abusive partner. Obviously, that scenario can and does happen, regardless of where the person learns their diagnosis. I'm just thinking that, in an ideal setting, someone could receive counseling around talking about their diagnosis and also be screened for intimate partner violence [without their partner being present].”
That’s not to say that the program isn’t a milestone and shouldn’t be celebrated. The point, Smith-Camejo adds, is that private requesters should be keenly aware of their own situation and to enter it well-informed.
“I predict there will be some positive results, and I hope that those who do test positive know that everything is going to be OK and that HIV is not what it used to be,” adds Moore. “Persons who are living with HIV can live long and healthy lives.”
“For many reasons, there are persons who are sexually active yet don’t have the opportunity made easily available to them to get tested for HIV,” says Moore. “This program changes that and will allow thousands more in the U.S. to be made aware of their HIV status, which ultimately ensures that these persons are taking the first step of being in control of their sexual health.”
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