By Zaineb Javaid and Erin Reed
After a night of partying, Chicagoans spill out of bars and nightclubs and into the streets, maybe grabbing some food before retiring to their beds or the bed of another.
Or perhaps they might decide to get tested for HIV.
The AIDS Foundation of Chicago’s Prevention team frequently travels to high-risk areas throughout the Chicagoland area to conduct rapid HIV testing. The “finders” have their rapid result mouth swab testing kits, called Oraquick, in tow and hit the streets to encourage night dwellers to get tested.
“The program found 10 to 12 individuals who were HIV positive [last year],” said Alicia Bunton, Director of Care and Quality Improvement at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.
Oraquick is a technology that has made testing much more accessible because it does not involve a finger prick or drawing blood. It is a simple mouth swab that you place in solution and you have the results in 20 minutes. With 98 percent accuracy, the prevention team conducts these rapid result tests where the people are—parks, fast food restaurants and even nightclubs.
Every 9 1/2 minutes, a person in the United Stated is infected with HIV, according to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. Currently, there are more than 20,000 people in the city of Chicago living with HIV, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health’s fall 2011 STI/HIV Surveillance Report. The report estimates that 20 percent of people infected with HIV are unaware of their status; so a more realistic number of Chicagoans living with this disease is closer to 25,000.
“For some, waiting 20 minutes for their tests to develop can feel like an eternity,” said Bunton. “They get scared about what their results could be based on taking a walk down memory lane as far as behavior is concerned.”
According to the Chicago Department of Public Health, there has been a 40 percent reduction in the number of HIV infections since 2000 due to the efforts of the CDPH and other community partners. Even though the percents are declining overall, HIV is hitting the black community harder than ever.
“We are finding a lot more infections in men who have sex with men in communities of color. The numbers have gone down for white MSMs, but unfortunately it is still a problem in communities of color,” Bunton said. “The MSMs who are also found out to be positive are skewing younger. And by younger I mean teens.”
Cynthia Tucker, Director of Prevention and Community Partnership at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, is concerned about the rising numbers of those infected by HIV.
“We are seeing numbers creeping back up because no one is talking about it anymore and people think they must not be at high risk anymore,” she said. “As we know, all individuals are at high risk if you are having sex.”
Bunton explained that the goal at the AFC is to try to make getting tested as regular as getting a breast exam or your cholesterol checked.
“We try to make it routine so individuals know it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” said Bunton.
Rapid Result HIV testers don’t seek out the infected. Rather, they seek out people that want to know their status. If the 20-minute Oraquick test comes back positive, the testers need one more insurance. After a positive result from Oraquick, the prevention team conducts a Clearview test, which involves a finger prick, but still only takes 20 minutes.
“If these two rapid technologies come back positive, then we do let the person know that they have tested positive for HIV,” said Bunton.
“The stigma surrounding AIDS is the whole reason in the nutshell,” said Tucker. “I have found people positive and they refuse to accept the information, and that’s only because of the stigma. That’s like playing Russian Roulette.”
Bunton has memories of clients that believed they were not susceptible to the virus to have their tests come back positive. These women were in a committed marriage in which they were faithful but their husbands were not. Bunton recalled clients that contracted the disease after the first time having unprotected sex.
“These people would tell you, ‘Guess what, it can happen to you because it happened to me,” Bunton said.