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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 1, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 26
Dr. J: HIV testing: we've come a long way, baby
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Dr. J: HIV testing: we've come a long way, baby

by Dr. Joanne Stekler - Special to the SGN

Joanne Stekler, M.D., MPH, is deputy director of community services for the HIV/STD Program at Public Health - Seattle & King County. She is also an internal medicine and infectious disease physician at Harborview Medical Center, and assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Washington.

This article is part of a series focusing on HIV and other STD prevention and care topics for Gay/Bisexual men and Transgender individuals in Seattle and King County.


Thirty years ago, doctors around the world started to see a new, deadly disease impacting Gay and Bi men. This disease, first known as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) and later as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), was quickly found to be caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

A lot has happened since AIDS was identified. Presidents have come and gone. There have been medical, cultural, and social advances, even if they've come slower than we would have liked. But, unfortunately, HIV is going to be with us for a while. Today, I want to tell you about what's going on in HIV testing. One day I hope I'll write about a cure.

HIV testing remains one of the most important tools in the fight against AIDS. And there's been lots of progress over the last 30 years to make tests quicker, easier, and more convenient. When the first HIV test came out in 1985, it could take up to six months after someone got infected before the test would reliably detect antibodies to HIV. Our antibody tests have gotten better, and newer tests are pretty accurate about four to six weeks after someone gets infected. We still have that wait because most tests rely on the body to make antibodies to HIV. However, if you get tested at the STD clinic, Gay City, or the baths, RNA tests can detect the actual virus about two weeks after infection.

In the 1980s, people waited nervously for weeks before going back to the clinic to get results. Rapid tests now give results in 10-20 minutes. There's a new rapid test that takes only 60 seconds. And there's an even newer rapid test that we're studying at the STD Clinic and Gay City that both gives results in minutes and can detect HIV before antibodies develop.

We're trying to make testing easier so people will do it more often. For those of you who don't like getting your blood drawn, rapid tests use finger sticks or even mouth swabs. Sometime soon you may be able to buy an HIV test at a drugstore and test yourself at home. The iTest study, going on through the University of Washington, is looking to see how this will work.

Despite the fact that testing has gotten easier and quicker, about 15% of HIV-positive Gay and Bi guys in Seattle still don't know they're infected. How do we know this? Because people like you have participated in the PITCH study, which will be going on again this summer. This study is important because it helps us direct future testing and other resources to where they're needed most. So if you see the Public Health RV, and study staff ask you to participate, please agree to help.

If you're Gay or Bi and sexually active, you should get tested for HIV/STDs at least once a year. You should get tested every three months if you:

o use meth or poppers,

o had anal sex in the last year with someone who was a different HIV status than you or whose status you didn't know,

o had sex with more than 10 people in the last year (that's any kind of sex!), or

o had chlamydia, gonorrhea, or syphilis recently.

If you get tested for STDs at your doctor's office, be sure to get a complete screen - that means your mouth, your butt, and your penis. And make sure you get tested for syphilis, since syphilis is on the rise.

I hope you took a moment to think about the last 30 years as you celebrated Gay Pride this past weekend. We indeed have come a long way! Keep your eyes peeled for AIDS@30 commemorative artwork on the red wall at the Capitol Hill Light Rail construction site on Broadway. You can submit thoughts and memories to www.hiv-30.org.

If you're a guy who has sex with other guys, you can get tested for HIV and other STDs at Public Health's STD Clinic, at Gay City, or at your doctor's office. For hours and locations, call 206-296-4649 or go to www.kingcounty.gov/health/hiv.

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