When it comes to AIDS, knowledge equals power and now within just 20 minutes – the time it may take to travel from the club to the crib for a quick hook-up – you can find out with about 92 percent accuracy whether you or a consenting partner has the virus.
Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] approved the OraQuick In-Home HIV Test which uses a saliva sample obtained by oral swab to determine the presence of HIV antibodies, which if undetected can lead to AIDS.
"The plus side of the rapid, at-home testing is that we are glad to see this as an additional tool in the fight against AIDS that will contribute to more people getting tested," said Chip Lewis, deputy director of communications, for Whitman-Walker Health in Northwest. "The reality is that a quarter to a third of those infected with HIV, do not know they're positive. It's so important for people to get tested, to know their results, and to seek treatment – that's where Whitman Walker comes in," Lewis said.
According to the D.C. Department of Health's 2011 "District of Columbia HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD and TB Epidemiology Annual Report," the number of new AIDS cases decreased by 32 percent, from 700 in 2006 to 477 in 2010. However, the percentage of residents infected – near three percent – still remains high enough for HIV/AIDS to rate as an epidemic in the District.
D.C. had more than 800 new HIV infections in 2011, based upon Whitman-Walker data. "We had 200 deaths from AIDS last year, which is still too many, but represents a decrease in mortality that means we're heading in the right direction," Lewis said.
With epidemic levels of HIV/AIDS in the District, black women are at the epicenter of the crisis. HIV rates in the past two years have doubled to 12 percent among black women in D.C.'s poorest neighborhoods; and further, black women represent the vast majority of all newly reported HIV infections nationwide.
The District, with its record number of HIV/AIDS cases, has become ground zero for the 2012 International AIDS Conference which started on July 22 and runs through July 27, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Northwest. Organizers selected the District to celebrate President Barack Obama lifting the "HIV travel ban" in 2009, which ended a U.S. ban on travelers with the HIV virus.
When asked about the prevalence of HIV among black women, LaFonda Willis, 29, a graduate student and a single black woman who lives in Northwest said that black men need to be forthcoming about their sexual history.
"A woman should be able to make an informed decision as to whether she's in agreement with a man's particular sexual preferences; she has the right to know."
For Willis, it's about black men being honest about sexual practices with the women they're dating. For Lewis, of Whitman-Walker Health, "It's behavioral patterns – not race, sexual orientation, or gender – that contributes to increased infection rates."
"It's not a gay disease or black disease, it's a disease based upon behavior. If people are engaging in unprotected sex or sharing needles, then they're at risk. It is a disease that can affect anyone," Lewis said.
Meghan Davies, Whitman-Walker's director of Community Health, said she's heartened by the greater access to testing the at-home HIV kit affords individuals. However, she expressed apprehension about non-medical professionals testing themselves.
"I have concern about people using the at-home HIV test correctly – following the instructions and continuing to test up to six months after potential exposure, which is the length of time it can take for the body to manifest antibodies to the virus," Davies said.
"Testing at home is not for everyone – each individual will respond differently to test results that can be unnerving. At Whitman-Walker Health, the tests are free of charge – unlike the home kit that could run in the double-digit price range," Davies said.
"We walk people through testing and treatment options, as well as affordable medical regiments, if they're D.C. residents." Davies said that the District offers far more affordable treatment options than either Maryland or Virginia.
Xander Sun, a D.C. attorney and a gay Asian male, applauds the FDA's approval of the first at-home HIV test, but has reservations.
"I think this is an important tool in the fight against AIDS, but there is a need to improve the accuracy rate; otherwise, it could become counter-productive in the long run," said Sun, 42, who lives in Arlington, Va. "I would still recommend it to everyone for the time being."
Adrian Crockwell, of the District and a manager of a Ward 4 CVS Pharmacy, said he's a heterosexual black male in a long-term relationship. He monogamous and said that he's aware of his partner's status.
"Sure, I'd use the test, but it doesn't solve the problem of people not wanting to use condoms and women feeling too intimidated to ask their partners to take the test," said Crockwell, 33.
Hearkening back to Lewis' pronouncement about the lead cause of the spread of the virus, "It's behavior," Crockwell said.
Although, there's treatment for HIV, there's still no cure. However, two weeks ago, the U.S. government approved Truvada, manufactured by Gilead, as the first daily pill for the prevention of HIV infection among persons in high-risk groups. Critics of Truvada, insist that the drug comes with its own hefty price tag and problems – with its $1,200 a month fee and possible side effects that include diarrhea, bone, and kidney damage.
"When people talk about a generation free of AIDS that does not mean free of HIV. If you're HIV- positive and get care early enough, you'll still be HIV-positive but you'll likely never develop AIDS. When experts and policymakers talk about a generation without AIDS, they're talking about people not becoming sick with AIDS," Lewis said.