Activists have put ads on buses across the city encouraging people to go out and get tested for National HIV Testing Day, this Sunday.
Tonya Rasberry was married with three small children when her husband suddenly fell ill and landed in the hospital after a stroke. Doctors ran a series of screening tests for the 32-year-old, including for HIV.
His tests came back positive. He had full blown AIDS.
Rasberry was tested immediately. The results came back days before her 29th birthday: She was HIV positive.
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“When I found out,” she said, “I was in a complete haze.”
Rasberry had been with her husband for almost a decade. Like many people, she assumed marriage eliminated her risk of HIV infection.
But she’s found that many women share her story. Now as a peer counselor with “BABES Network-YWCA,” a Seattle-based HIV support group for women, she travels to schools and juvenile-detention centers to talk with young women as “the new face of HIV.” Her goal is to show them that everyone is at risk.
“Anyone in a sexual relationship needs to be talking about HIV,” Rasberry said.
To initiate the conversation, Rasberry and her colleagues have put ads on buses across the city encouraging people to go out and get tested for National HIV Testing Day, this Sunday.
The ad features four smiling and radiant women, including Rasberry, displaying this headline: “I never thought it could happen to me.”
Push for screening
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested as part of regular doctor’s visits, along with screening for high blood pressure or cholesterol.
Despite years of dedicated HIV education since the epidemic was recognized in 1981, more than 1 million people in the United States still have HIV, with 56,000 new infections and more than 14,000 deaths every year.
In Washington state, 531 newly diagnosed cases were reported in 2009, according to the state Department of Health. More than half of those were in King County. More than 10,500 people in the state are living with HIV, according to department figures.
Of those infected nationwide, one in every five, or more than 200,000 people, don’t know they’re infected, said Nikki Kay, a CDC spokeswoman.
“Many people make the assumption they’re not infected, and yet those who are unaware account for the majority of new infections,” Kay said.
Research shows that those who know their status tend to take precautions to protect their partners. “We can’t be complacent about the disease,” she said. “Testing is a key step in ending the epidemic.”
Setting national testing guidelines is an easy first step, but pushing them into action is more difficult. The CDC passed the guidelines in 2006, but they weren’t adopted by Washington state until January of this year. And most doctors still don’t offer the tests during regular checkups or hospital visits.
“The number one barrier to clinicians moving forward is they don’t believe their populations are high risk,” said Joanne Stekler, deputy director with the Public Health — Seattle & King County HIV/STD Program.
And while some populations are at much higher risk than others, “we really do want providers to make HIV testing part of their regular screening routine,” she said. If providers don’t offer a test, she recommends that patients take the initiative to ask for one so that everyone knows their HIV status.
For those who don’t have access to regular health care, community health centers, nonprofits and clinics across the county offer free or sliding-scale HIV tests that are anonymous and confidential.
“Seattle really has a lot of choices for HIV services, and many of them are demographic specific,” said Austin Anderson, an educator with the Center for MultiCultural Health.
Anderson’s office focuses on African-American men, a demographic that faces a disproportionately high HIV burden. According to the CDC, African Americans account for only 12 percent of the U.S. population, but almost half of all people living with HIV and nearly half of new infections. Black women become infected at 22 times the rate of white women.
Other organizations, such as Gay City Health Project, offer regular testing for gay and bisexual men, who continue to account for the largest number of current and new HIV infections in the country. In Seattle, gay men account for almost three-quarters of new infections.
“We really try to encourage those who are sexually active to make testing part of their regular routine,” said Fred Swanson, executive director at Gay City.
Through regular testing, HIV-positive people are more likely to receive early intervention and treatment, increasing their chances of living full healthy lives.
Tonya Rasberry’s husband passed away within a few years of his AIDS diagnosis, but she has remained healthy by staying on a regimen of antiretroviral medicines.
“Having HIV has definitely changed my life,” Rasberry said. “But, for the most part, I’m healthy and happy.”
Being a mother to three children, who all tested negative for HIV, remains her biggest job and identity, she said.
In this way, Rasberry also represents the new face of HIV. In the three decades since HIV emerged in the U.S., the disease has been transformed from an untreatable and highly deadly infection to an extremely treatable condition where most people who have it can anticipate a near normal life span, said Matthew Golden, director of the Public Health — Seattle & King County HIV/STD Program.
“There is probably nothing in medicine since the time I have been a doctor where the progress has been so dramatic,” he said.
Cassandra Brooks: 206-464-2311 or firstname.lastname@example.org