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How HIV Screenings Work and Why They’re Important

An estimated 15%–or one in seven–HIV-positive people are completely unaware of their status despite that care and support are more available than ever.

The United States Department of Health and Human Services estimates that over one million Americans are currently living with human immunodeficiency virus, more commonly known as HIV. However, due to the stigma surrounding the virus and a lack of regular screening guidelines, it’s possible this number could be even higher.

In fact, it’s estimated that 15%–or one in seven–HIV-positive people are completely unaware of their status.

Physician and coordinator in clinical setting

Dr. Lisa Spacek (right), director of the HIV Ambulatory Care Program, with Alyssa Kennedy (left) coordinator of the Ryan White Program.

“You can’t tell if someone is infected with HIV. You can’t see it,” said Dr. Lisa Spacek, director of the HIV Ambulatory Care Program at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

Due to the pervasiveness of the virus and stigmas surrounding the virus, regular screening and effective treatment are often overlooked. However, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and The Ryan White Program are working to change perceptions and expand access to care.

The Virus
HIV is a chronic viral infection that compromises the immune system over time. The virus can be successfully managed with physician oversight, allowing patients to live long, healthy lives with treatment. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognizes that patients receiving effective treatment can suppress the virus to a point where it is no longer detectable or contagious.

Not every person with HIV develops acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or AIDS. However, if left untreated, HIV will eventually evolve into AIDS, a late stage of the infection in which the immune system begins to shut down entirely.

Overcoming the Stigma
HIV is transmitted through the bodily fluids of an infected person, most commonly through sexual contact or a shared needle. Unfortunately, this has led to long-held misconceptions and stigma, claiming the virus only affects those who use drugs or men who have sex with men.

In fact, the virus can be passed to any unprotected person, regardless of their sexual orientation or lifestyle.

“That includes anyone who is sexually active but doesn’t know the HIV status of their partner or is in a sexual relationship with someone who is not receiving treatment for an HIV infection,” said Dr. Spacek

Testing and Support from the Ryan White Foundation
As HIV and AIDS continue to impact Americans at epidemic levels, more hospitals, clinics and government associations are offering affordable and accessible tools to manage an HIV diagnosis or to prevent HIV infection.

The first step toward successful treatment of HIV is catching it early and achieving viral suppression with treatment.

“Testing as a standard of care is the new ‘big thing’ in HIV/AIDS treatment,” said Dr. Spacek. “We want to diagnose those with HIV and treat them early.” Plus, the virus is most contagious immediately after it enters your system, as the amount of virus is greatest during the earliest stages of infection.

Opt-out HIV testing is being used in emergency rooms around the world, including Jefferson Health in Center City.

“With this program, patients are offered the test and opt-out, meaning that the test is ordered if the patient provides verbal consent, and is not withheld unless the patient expressly says no,” said Dr. Spacek. “Then, they are notified in person if the test is positive. This makes HIV testing more routine and allows people who are infected to receive treatment.”

Patients can seek tests in their local clinic, or find additional details on government-sponsored websites dedicated to prevention. Many times, the tests will be free of charge or covered by insurance.

Dr. Spacek would like to see sexually active people receive a screening three or four times a year, but recommends an annual test at a minimum. In fact, at the community’s urging, primary care providers are beginning to include the test as part of their regular treatment, especially in high-risk areas.

“We also want to expand awareness beyond stigmatized communities,” she added. And there’s no pressure when you get to the office.

“When you walk into the clinic, we will thank you. Overcoming the shame and fear can be difficult. But people become resilient and thrive with treatment and awareness.

“People learn to advocate for themselves.”

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