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In the Fight Against HIV/AIDS, a New Tool for New York's Women in Underserved Communities, but Challenges Remain

Posted: 07/18/2012 3:16 pm

Testing yourself for HIV will soon be as simple as checking yourself for pregnancy. That's because the Food and Drug Administration has approved a device called "OraQuick" for sale over the counter. Unlike today's home HIV tests -- which require the user to collect a tiny blood sample and send it to a laboratory -- the new test requires only a swab from inside the mouth. Better yet, it delivers results within 40 minutes, directly to the user.

This vital new technology can save lives by helping infected people learn their status and, if necessary, get treatment to control the infection. Besides keeping HIV-positive people healthy, drugs that suppress the virus can reduce -- by 96 percent -- their risk of infecting sexual partners. Will Oraqucik actually reduce infections and deaths in New York City? Only if it reaches the people at greatest risk of contracting HIV, and only if those who test positive get the care and treatment they need. Unfortunately, those are both big ifs. As one of the city's biggest HIV risk groups, women of color have a direct stake in rapid home testing. Many live in high-poverty neighborhoods -- where HIV is more prevalent and high-quality health care is scarce -- and their health suffers accordingly. In 2010, African Americans accounted for some 64 percent of new HIV diagnoses among New York City women, according to the city health department, even though they make up only 24 percent of the female population. Foreign-born New Yorkers could also benefit greatly from rapid home testing, since many are subject to taboos, misconceptions and misinformation about HIV.

Despite a steady decline in HIV deaths, New York City remains an epicenter of the U.S. epidemic, with prevalence rates at three times the national average. While celebrating the arrival of a new tool to help combat this 30-year blight, we must ensure that the tool itself reaches those in greatest need. If the cost is prohibitive, the New Yorkers with the most to gain from rapid testing will benefit the least. And unless users of the new test have ready access to care, treatment and counseling, increased testing won't translate into better health.

Planned Parenthood of New York City is here to help bridge those gaps. Besides testing thousands of New Yorkers in our health centers each year -- and linking them to the services they need -- we reach out to underserved communities through a program called Project Street Beat. Using minivans and a mobile medical unit, the program serves women, men and teens who live and work on the streets. Our clients include injection drug users, homeless people, commercial sex workers and other people at risk. And our services include rapid HIV testing, coupled with education, counseling and linkage to medical care.

For many of these clients, a self-administered, over-the-counter HIV test is of little use by itself. Even if they were aware of the test, and able to buy and use it, few of those testing positive would find their way into consistent long-term care without the help of programs like ours.

Planned Parenthood will continue to provide testing at no cost to those most at risk of infection. And because knowing one's status isn't enough, we will continue to provide a vital link between testing and consistent care and treatment. At the same time, we will encourage those with access to OraQuick to use it regularly -- and protect themselves.

 

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