Walgreen’s pharmacy manager Sarah Freedman stands in her store in Washington, Tuesday, June 26, 2012. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced a $1.2 million pilot project to offer free rapid HIV tests at pharmacies and clinics in 24 cities and rural communities.
Have you ever been tested for HIV? Would you consider it if the test were free and offered at your local drugstore?
Health officials are hoping the answer to the latter question is “yes.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday that a $1.2 million program is going to offer free rapid HIV tests at drugstores, such as Walgreens, at 24 locations across the United States.
For now, it is only a pilot program. When the trial ends next summer the CDC will assess the positives and negatives of the project and perhaps consider making it a permanent service.
How do college students feel about the new pilot program and how do they feel about HIV testing in general? In honor of National HIV Testing Day on Wednesday, July 27, I took a walk around University City in West Philadelphia to find out.
“None of my friends ever talked about [getting tested], not ever, ever,” said Jackie Estevez, 24, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2010 and was visiting campus for the day.
Jordan Coello, 23, who also graduated in 2010, said Penn did a great job of creating awareness about HIV, offering free tests at its health center, and promoting discussion on campus. However, he said, there seems to be a disconnect between the information given out and students’ desire to get tested.
While the CDC recommends that all Americans ages 13 to 64 get tested at least once — not just those who are considered at highest risk — many college students do not even consider it.
Dr. Ameya Nayate, who specializes in diagnostic radiology at Penn Medicine, said college students often do not realize how simple it is to contract the disease.
“They have all this new freedom and they just think ‘I’m invincible,’ “ Nayate said. “They trust what their partners tell them and they don’t think they’ll get it.”
Jane Lee, a nursing student at Drexel University, agreed that while HIV testing and education is highly promoted in the Philadelphia, it is not a conversation she has ever had with friends.
“I can talk about sex but not about AIDS. It’s scary,” Lee, 21, from Langhorne, Pa. said.
But twenty-somethings I talked to agreed: offering free HIV tests in drugstores could help make HIV testing less scary, more accessible and more “routine.”
Carly Rubin, a student in the accelerated nursing program at Penn, said a student may feel too stigmatized to walk into a Planned Parenthood or a clinic for an HIV test. But getting tested at a drugstore would be easier.
“Everyone goes to Walgreens. It’s just a lot more familiar. You go in for some grocery shopping and on your way out you can get tested,” Rubin, 23, from Wynnewood, Pa. said.
HIV tests being free and accessible are key, said Lee. But also she thinks testing should also be more of a regular procedure.
She added that her primary doctor in her hometown never inquired about her sexual health and her OB/GYN never asked if she wanted to be tested for HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases.
She said doctors often focus more on acute care, where a patient receives treatment after he or she is already diagnosed, rather than preventive care or education.
This is problematic because, according to the CDC, an estimated 1.2 million Americans are infected with HIV, but as many as 20 percent of them don’t know they have the virus.
Estevez said that while Penn and other university health centers offer free HIV tests, perhaps some students don’t know about the service or simply do not ask for it. She said doctors can do a better job of informing students that the test is accessible.
“At some point in college a student will end up at the health center. A doctor should just ask ‘Oh, while you’re here, do you want to try a free HIV test?’”
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