“No matter how careful you are, every sexual encounter poses a risk of HIV infection.”
That’s a lesson I learned long ago in sexual education campaigns in my country of origin, Brazil, which are considered some of the world’s best.
Whether you’re gay or straight – or anything in between – if you have had sex, there’s a real possibility you might be infected. That is the reason my heart starts beating a bit faster the second I enter one of the testing rooms at the Center on Halsted, in the Boystown enclave of Lakeview.
Last time I had been tested was about a year and a half ago (health organizations recommend tests every 3-6 months for sexually active and/or drug using individuals), and even as I try to be good (almost) every time, frankly you can never know for sure what your sex partners have been up to.
The person who conducted the test, Health Educator Kimberly Fisher, was extremely calm and pleasant, and did help me feel comfortable and relax. She assured me I would live through it.
After a tiny (but scary) needle poke on my finger – it barely hurts, but I have needle-phobia – a first drop of blood is removed and the second one is used for the test. Kimberly sets a timer for 15 minutes, the time it takes for a safe result.
She explains one line on the test display would mean a negative result, and a double line would mean a preliminary positive.
While we wait, we go over my sexual and drug use behavior though about 25-30 questions, all of which I answered honestly but wasn’t required to do so.
This is actually helpful because the first time I look at the timer it had only 6 minutes left on it.
Kimberly notices me looking and checks on the test but doesn’t reveal the result to me just yet. Although I’m tense, I knew I had to wait the full 15 minutes.
At the end of the questionnaire, Kimberly asks me if I had any questions on how HIV can be transmitted or prevented. Since I’ve always being curious about HIV and its implications on the gay community – and perhaps because I was a little nervous – nothing came to mind that minute, but I usually have ton of questions.
At this time, my result came back negative, but I know because of the window period I should get tested again in a few months.
I was relieved, yes, but I try to tell myself and others that even if the result had been different, it’s not the end.
“On the contrary: it’s a new beginning.”
Getting tested: What you need to know:
Chicago has more than one hundred places where you can get tested for HIV – most of them anonymously and free of charge. All you need to do is walk in or set up an appointment at one of the testing sites. Click here to find a location near you.
Today it is possible to know your status within 15-20 minutes, by getting your levels of antibodies measured through a saliva or blood sample. That’s how the majority of tests are done. They’re inexpensive and very accurate.
There are three possible results when you get an antibody-based HIV test: negative, preliminary positive and invalid.
Most people develop detectable levels of HIV antibodies within 6 to 12 weeks of infection, so to avoid a false negative result tests are recommended three months after potential exposure to HIV.
A positive result is only conclusive after you get a second confirmatory test, which had to be sent to a laboratory. So even if an individual gets a positive result, it’s not considered definite until a more sophisticated lab test confirms it.
Before taking an HIV test, an individual has to sign a consent form, which can be confidential or anonymous.
A confidential test means the result will be put on your medical record and shared only with the Illinois Department of Public Heath. An anonymous test does not require your name or any other identifying information – test results are not added to your personal medical record but are shared with the government for public health reasons.
At Center on Halsted, while someone waits for the 15-20-minute test result to be revealed, a health educator may ask questions about personal sex and drug use behavior. Responding is optional.
After the result is revealed to the patient, they get orientation on what the next steps are to seek medication and achieving health.
“A positive HIV result is no longer a death sentence,” said Jill Dispenza, director of HIV testing and prevention at Center on Halsted.