Throughout the year, we mark important HIV awareness days focused on youth, women, and girls, vaccine research, and disproportionate impact on Black, Native, Latinx, National Asian, and Pacific Islander populations. In September, we highlight both National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day and National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Each of these days gives us a chance as physicians and public health experts to raise awareness and encourage adults and adolescents to get tested for HIV.
This outreach, for some, can be lifesaving—reducing the stigma associated with HIV and the anxiety that may come from requesting a test from one’s doctor or local community health services providers. But what happens when dedicated days of awareness are over?
As preventive medicine physicians, we understand that milestone days can go a long way toward building awareness around critical public health issues. However, the importance of HIV testing and the empowerment gained by “knowing your status” should be embraced and promoted throughout the year. We must all work consistently to promote the availability, convenience, and personal and public health importance of testing for HIV infection.
Right now, approximately 1.2 million Americans are living with HIV. Of those, more than 150,000 don’t even know it. For that 13% of individuals, one single test can be the difference between maintaining an undetectable level of HIV or progressing to late-stage HIV or AIDS. An early HIV diagnosis can help patients receive timely antiretroviral therapy that can prevent the virus from damaging the immune system and can greatly improve a patient's quality of life over the long term. In fact, with early detection and treatment, someone who is HIV positive can have a similar life expectancy to an HIV-negative individual. Therefore, as physicians, we must stress the importance of testing and follow-up treatment for HIV positive individuals. Early detection provides the opportunity for early action with lifesaving results.
Demetre Daskalakis, MD, director of HIV prevention at the CDC, said it best, “The only way we can truly end HIV in the United States is by eliminating the barriers that prevent equitable access to HIV prevention.” Testing is a critical step for HIV prevention. It is of utmost importance to make testing easily accessible and encouraged among people of all races, sexual orientations and gender identities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. The CDC recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 years gets tested at least once as part of routine health care, with those more at risk for HIV testing at least annually.
As preventive medicine specialists, we are working on the front lines in the fight against HIV and AIDS. Ensuring access to testing and treatment, getting patients into regular testing, and encouraging the use of pre- and postexposure prophylaxis (PrEP and PEP) are critical. For many, the solution starts with meaningful conversations to reduce the stigma associated with HIV and the important measures available to prevent infection. It will take all of us in the health care community to help drive these conversations—yes, on awareness days and every single day of the year.