National HIV Testing Day. Why Testing Strategies Must Change.
Today marks another National HIV Testing Day—a countrywide push to get people tested for HIV and other STIs across all communities and genders. Every year, we see various organizations ramp up their efforts to try and get as many people tested today as possible, only to go back to normal efforts the following day. As we near 40 years of the HIV epidemic, it is important that not only do we continue to make efforts to increase testing numbers in marginalized communities, but that we do it all year long and not only on days specific to the cause.
As a former director of testing and counseling, I know firsthand the outdated strategies used around testing to gain numbers. Throwing events that have a testing component attached to them simply isn’t enough to make a dent in the epidemic that faces Black queer people and Black women in particular. There is still a very real stigma attached to people getting tested regularly for HIV, and that is where we must begin doing the work if we are going to change this narrative.
This requires those of us who are tested regularly for HIV and other STIs telling our truth publicly and creating more normalcy around what testing looks like. This year, the “Doing It My Way” campaign is trying to change the narrative around HIV testing. This national campaign within the CDC and Act Against AIDS aims to reduce the number of new HIV infections in the United States, reduce HIV stigma around testing, and encourage all adults 18–64 to start Doing It—testing for HIV—and knowing their status. Making HIV testing easy, accessible, and
routine are some of the keys to preventing new infections.
According to Doing It, “We want to hear personal [testimonies] of why testing is
important, what motivates people to get tested and stay healthy, and how people get tested—be it at home, at the clinic, or with the company of a friend or loved one. We’re encouraging everyone to share their stories using the hashtag: #DoingItMyWay.”
This is an important way to encourage others to get tested and motivate them to get past their fears, using yourself as the vessel to spread the message.
This strategy is awesome because it allows the narrative to be told by those who are taking responsibility and accountability for their own health. Allowing them to use their platforms to reach friends and family and even those who may not know them to share empowering messages and push people past their stigma and fear of knowing their status. The more normal testing becomes and the more people who see it, the less fearful they become about going to get tested themselves.
For agencies that are using this day and other national testing days to get their numbers, the strategy has to change if we are ever going to make a dent in the epidemic. Many agencies bank on Black events that center around populations most affected to get their numbers—Black Pride being one of the biggest events where you will see testing vans and counselors present throughout the weekend. Although this strategy can be effective in the short term, it is intrusive on the one space that Black queer people have every year, and is unreliable in residual results, as many people getting tested aren’t from the local area.
What needs to be adopted is a program where testing becomes as normal as those who are on PrEP or ART to go in to get their regular treatments. Quarterly, those on PrEP and ART must get their labs taken. During that time, many of us also get other testing done around STIs. Those who are negative and not on PrEP should be getting tested just as regularly by agencies that run testing and counseling services. Meaning, those who come in to get tested should be treated as clients rather than just numbers, and they should be scheduled for HIV and STI testing every 3-6 months. We have a tendency to treat a new test as a single number rather than as a client that could be 2-4 tests a year.
If we made testing as normal as an oil change on the car, more people would adopt it as an important part of their healthcare practices. People who are tested regularly are more likely to adopt safer sex practices, as well as meeting with counselors more often. They could even become clients for PrEP. Testing has to be a yearly operation that is consistent—rather than concentrated on several testing days and events throughout the year, which keep testing irregular.
As we near the 40-year mark of the HIV epidemic, it continues to plague Black and Brown queer communities at a much higher rate than our heterosexual counterparts. We must work on changing testing strategies if we are going to see the decline needed in regard to infection rates. It starts by #DoingIt, and encouraging others to do it, too.