Taking the test was the easy part. A simple swab of my gums (just like on CSI, I thought) and it was done. But it wasn’t my DNA that was tested. This swab was searching for antibodies my body would produce if it was fighting HIV.
The nurse who took my swab away didn’t know my name. She handed me a number and said she would call it in 20 minutes. I smiled and thanked her. After all, I was sure of the results.
And so I sat on a folding chair for the next minutes, watching the clock and pretending to read the newspaper. I wasn’t in any of the risk categories for HIV. I’m a 50-something suburban mom who doesn’t shoot drugs or have multiple sex partners. I’ve never had a blood transfusion. I was simply attending an AIDS conference where the rapid testing was available for anyone who was interested.
Like most Americans, I felt fairly sure that I was not at risk for HIV. But also like most Americans, I was only guessing about my HIV status. Unfortunately, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that of the million Americans who are HIV-positive, a quarter don’t know it and go on to infect others.
In September, the CDC issued a notice urging regular HIV testing of all Americans between the ages of 13 and 64 as part of any routine medical exam. With drugs now available to treat HIV and AIDS, finding out you are HIV-positive is not a death sentence. But not knowing in time could be.
SO WHY WOULD I get tested if I wasn’t at risk? First, I did it because I wanted to be able to tell others how simple and confidential the new tests really are. No blood work or days waiting for results. I can say with confidence that it is painless in every way.
Second, I have urged others who are in risk categories to be tested. I have watched too many people dying of AIDS, especially in Africa, remain in denial to the end. But worse, I have seen the wives and children who have been infected by someone who did not know his HIV status. If I am going to urge others to be tested, it seemed only fair that I step up myself.
And finally, I wanted to identify with those who are afraid of finding out their HIV status. As I sat in my folding chair for those few minutes, I tried to imagine how difficult it would be if I were unsure of the results.
My outcome was just what I expected—negative. But despite that, I was somehow changed by the experience. In some small way I found myself identifying more with those who are HIV-positive.
With the new rapid tests, it is possible for churches to sponsor testing in communities. Some will do this as an outreach. But I would urge church members to first be tested themselves. Because of the public health threat, it is our duty as citizens. And because of our call to identify with those who suffer, it is our privilege as Christians.
Dale Hanson Bourke is author of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Global AIDS Crisis (Authentic, 2004).