On a warm, drizzly day last June, a 21-year-old man named John (not his real name) walked into The Alliance for Positive Change’s Keith Haring Harlem Center. It was National HIV Testing Day, and it was his first time getting an HIV test.
John did not think testing positive could happen to him, and was stunned when it did. Though he was scared, the Alliance counselor let him know he was not alone, and that we would be with him as he faced his new diagnosis head on.
Through the Alliance’s priority medical partnerships with NewYork-Presbyterian, Mount Sinai, and The Institute for Family Health, we were able to fast-track John for a same-day medical appointment. The Alliance counselor explained the importance of early treatment, and offered to go with John to the doctor. He was also connected to Alliance’s mental health counseling, care management, and treatment education services. Together, John and an Alliance Peer Intern hopped on a train and headed to the doctor.
I share John’s story to illustrate the importance for everyone to get tested, know their status, and access medical care. HIV does not discriminate. Regardless of age, racial/ethnic background, gender or sexual identity, getting tested on National HIV Testing Day on June 27 is both easy and vital. It’s why The Alliance for Positive Change (formerly AIDS Service Center NYC) continues to provide free and confidential testing every day at all of our community centers throughout Harlem, Washington Heights, Lower East Side and midtown Manhattan.
In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, a diagnosis of “positive” was perhaps the most negative news one could ever receive. There was nothing “positive” about stigma and the lack of treatment and other basic services. Today, “positive” people are not only living longer, but are thriving in all aspects of their lives.
And yet, despite great strides in HIV treatment and declining rates of new infections and new diagnoses, HIV/AIDS is still around us–with no vaccine and no real cure in sight.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV, and one in seven of those don’t even know they have the virus. In New York City, some 114,000 people are living with HIV, and one out of every five don’t know it.
And HIV continues to disproportionately affect communities of color, MSM (men who have sex with men), transgender women, and substance users. In fact, the CDC reported last year that if current rates of HIV diagnoses persist in the United States, then about 1 in 2 Black/African American gay and bisexual men and 1 in 4 Hispanic/Latino gay and bisexual men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime.
Testing is the gateway to accessing needed services. The Alliance meets people where they need help the most: at home, on the street, or at an Alliance location. As soon as someone tests positive—usually close to two of every hundred we test—we coordinate their access to medical care, needle exchange, recovery support, peer counseling, and other vital services needed in their journey towards health, wellness and positive change. For those who test negative, we educate them and connect them to pre- and post-exposure medications that will keep them from contracting HIV.
Too many of us continue to lose loved ones to the AIDS epidemic. Absent a cure, education, using condoms and clean needles, and getting tested regularly are among our strongest prevention tools.
At The Alliance for Positive Change, we are building a community of support for people like John and hundreds more. Join the Alliance on National HIV Testing Day. Know your status, get tested, connect to medical care and stay healthy!
Sharen Duke is the executive director of The Alliance for Positive Change.