February 2, 2012

HIV/AIDS prevention in Chicago brings testing to drugstores and barber shops


David Nelson/MEDILL

The AIDS Foundation of Chicago is working to bring testing to an array of sites.

by David B. Nelson
Feb 02, 2012

Medical researchers continue to hunt for a cure for what some might call the polio of our time: HIV/AIDS. But innovative testing and health programs to prevent HIV/AIDS are launching in Chicago and other cities.

“I think what all these initiatives are trying to do is normalize testing,” said Johnathon Briggs, vice president of communications at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. “We’re focusing on non-traditional venues, places like clubs, businesses, barber shops, fairs,” he said.
The foundation organized testing events at three Walgreens in the Chicago area to coordinate with National HIV Testing Day on June 27th. The project will return this June and beyond.

“We didn’t expect that there’d be people who were already positive coming to us,” Briggs said. “These people knew they were HIV positive but wanted to finally get proper care." Briggs said foundation volunteers refer people all year long to healthcare specializing in HIV/AIDS treatment.

The AIDS Foundation is also arranging for testing at public aid sites, such a food stamp offices in the Chicago area.

In Washington, D.C. drivers waiting for services at the Department of Motor Vehicles can get an oral rapid test, which gives results within 20 minutes.

“We’re also equipped with trained HIV counselors in case a person is found to be infected,” said Michael Kharfen, bureau chief of community outreach at the D.C. department of health.
The testing, a public-private partnership between the department of health and the department of motor vehicles, has proven extremely successful.

“Our initial goal was to provide testing for up to 3,000 individuals,” Kharfen said, “or roughly 15 percent of individuals who visit our branch. In the first full year, we provided testing to over 5,000 people.”

“You can save other people's lives, but you can also save your own,” said Briggs.

People infected with HIV who don’t know they have the virus create a risk for doctors and the public as well as themselves, he said.
“They’ve never been tested because they’ve never perceived themselves at risk,” said Dr. Robert Hirschtick of Northwestern Memorial Hospital, a part-time specialist in HIV/AIDS. Hirschtick, who specializes in infectious disease, said, “When most people first get infected, they brush off the symptoms by saying they have the flu. These can be fatigue, fever, achiness, sore throat, and people think they just had a simple virus. They may not have those symptoms again for 10 years.”

The Chicago Department of Public Health also has begun a Get Tested Chicago program which promotes testing for not only HIV, but also various STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections). The publicity blitz has hit the city in the form of public service announcements on both English and Spanish-speaking radio and television channels, as well as billboards on Clark Street and Diversey Avenue and 95th Street and Stony Island Avenue.

“Usually if you have on STI, it puts you at greater risk because of the sores associated with herpes, or the lesions with syphilis or gonorrhea,” said Briggs.

“Behaviorally, if you’re already having sexual activity that’s less than safe, you’re going to be exposed to multiple infections,” added Dr. Hirschtick. “But biologically you’re at risk without that natural protective barrier.”

An estimated 34 million people around the world currently live with HIV/AIDS, according to a study by AVERT, an international charity. In the same year, 2.7 million more people were infected, and 1.8 million lost their lives.

Despite these staggering numbers and with no real cure or vaccine in sight, activists remain optimistic.

“We’ve started to see that once people are infected, and know they are, they change their behavior,” said Briggs. “They want to make sure they don’t spread it to anyone else. And if they start early and adhere to a treatment regiment, they can reduce that spread. And this is a wonderful thing.”


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