- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2006

What was your blood pressure reading this morning? How about your cholesterol numbers? Know whether you are diabetic? HIV-positive? You should. And the sooner, the better.

Most of us are familiar with that “dum-dee-dum-dum” feeling when our heart starts thumping and our throat tightens and sweat beads break out on our forehead while we sit all alone, cold and unclothed, in a sterile examining room waiting for the good or not-so-good news.

Ladies, does the dreaded mammogram mash come to mind? Don’t know what’s worse, the annual torture test or the tense time during a recheck before you are released from the clinician’s chamber. But a Sistagirl’s gotta do what a Sistagirl’s gotta do.

Better to know than not about all that ails you.

It doesn’t matter if the test is a routine blood analysis (Ouch, I have tiny veins that won’t cooperate, requiring multiple sticks) or a surgical biopsy (courtesy of mad knockout drugs), half the panting patient’s problem is the excessive worry.

We want to know, and we don’t. That goes double if the unwelcome results of a stigmatizing disease are going to somehow be made public.

“Tsk, tsk.” Remember when people used to whisper about contracting the Big C, as if it somehow marked them with a scarlet letter? Today, getting a diagnosis of HIV infection evokes a similar stigma.

How else to account for the unwillingness of folks to get tested for this disease that is still being contracted in epidemic proportions, especially among blacks?

So, let’s give credit to Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting member of Congress, for enlisting 15 members of the Congressional Black Caucus last week to get tested publicly for the HIV virus in a Unity Health Care mobile bus.

Always looking for innovative ways to approach an issue, a “very frustrated” Mrs. Norton attempted to set an example on the Hill on Thursday by taking the easy 20-minute mouth-swab HIV test (which came back negative).

Mrs. Norton, concerned that the face of HIV/AIDS is now black, is trying to do whatever she can to increase the visibility of the preventable disease to stop its spread. She is encouraging leaders in the black community to step up the dialogue about this taboo subject.

“How did half the AIDS cases become African-American?” she asked. She blames silence, stigma and lack of leadership.

Statistics indicate that the rate of HIV/AIDS in the District is double the national average. Although homosexual men and intravenous drug users are in the highest risk category, black women are the fastest-growing group contracting the disease. A fair number of them are married.

“The key missing ingredient in the African-American epidemic has been black leadership on testing, safe sex, condoms and needle-exchange programs, and on [an] overwhelming homophobia, which is in league with the disease in the black community,” Mrs. Norton said.

“Some people would rather die than get tested,” she said. Surely they will if they don’t get tested and start treatment early — stigma be cursed.

Mrs. Norton also is trying to get Congress to lift its rider on the District’s budget that bans spending federal money on needle-exchange programs that have helped cut the rate of HIV/AIDS in other big cities. She also is organizing a meeting of ministers to get them to talk about the disease and its causes from the pulpit.

“I want to talk about it out in the open,” she said yesterday.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that everyone ages 13 through 64 get tested for HIV as a matter of routine health care.

The CDC estimates that 250,000 Americans are infected with the virus that causes AIDS but do not know it. If they knew, they would seek treatment earlier and experience fewer complications. And, they probably would not unwittingly spread infection further.

“We simply must improve diagnosis,” CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding told the Associated Press. She added that an HIV test should be as common as a cholesterol check.

Pregnant women already are tested. High-risk people often are tested, too. Now, patients getting checkups in doctors’ or dentists’ offices or those needing emergency care in hospitals or clinics will be asked to be tested. A test can cost between $2.50 and $20.

Questions have been raised about confidentiality, written consent and pre-test counseling, which would no longer be required. But people can exercise their right to opt out.

The District began a free testing program in the summer. It is important to get as many people tested as possible so health care providers know the extent of the disease and how to attack it.

More importantly, people have a responsibility to themselves, to the people they love and to their community, as Mrs. Norton suggests, to know their body and to care for it as best they can.

Testing, especially for HIV/AIDS, is a necessary start.

Have I been tested? Yes, more than once (negative results). But I know someone who is an AIDS patient who could be having an easier time now had an HIV test been administered earlier.

Just as the CDC recommends, getting tested for HIV/AIDS ought to be as routine as getting your blood pressure or your cholesterol checked. It’s well worth that “dum-dee-dum-dum” feeling or those “tsk-tsk” stares.

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