Getting tested could be the wake-up call that saves your life

OPINION - The earlier you know your status, whether you are positive or negative, the more effective actions you can take. No matter what you may have heard...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

And still I rise, morning after morning to the blaring bedside alarm, only to find myself desiring a few more minutes of peace. Some days I hit snooze. I pull the comforter over my head because I am not done with sleep just yet. Usually I get up, thankful to God for the first moment of a new day and eager to go out and change the world. The truth is that my morning rituals have changed little since I was diagnosed with HIV in the 1990s. I still prefer less work, more money, good company and exciting weekends. I still love the life that I have, the friends who have been with me through thick and thin, and the family that has loved me no matter who I was or what I did. The truth is that I still rise to live a life that is pleasing to God and fulfilling for myself. Oddly enough, I sometimes forget that this virus has changed my life.

At times I ignore my mortality (the same mortality we all face as human beings) and live life in an unassuming way. However, there are those days when getting out of bed is physically impossible and I know it is not just because I am tired or went to bed too late. It is in those moments that I find myself at a place of understanding about the choices I made in life and the choices that could end my life prematurely. In spite of this, I am happy to be in the land of the living; I am happy that I got tested. More than anything, I am relieved that I know my status.

Here is some knowledge that cannot be shared enough. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV/AIDS was among the top three causes of death for African-American men aged 25-54 years and among the top four causes of death for African-American women aged 25-54 years. It was the leading cause of death for African-American women aged 25-34 years. According to the 2000 census, African-Americans make up approximately 13% of the US population. However, African-Americans accounted for 19,206 (50%) of the estimated 38,730 new HIV/AIDS diagnoses in the United States. This is within the 35 areas with long-term, confidential name-based HIV reporting.

The primary mode of HIV transmission among African-American men was sexual contact with other men, followed by heterosexual contact and injection drug use. The primary mode of HIV transmission among African-American women was heterosexual contact, followed by injection drug use. Of the estimated 145 infants perinatally infected with HIV (before or during delivery), 105 (73%) were African-American (CDC, HIV/AIDS Reporting System, unpublished data, June 2005). The rate of AIDS diagnoses for African-American adults and adolescents was 10 times the rate for whites and almost three times the rate for Hispanics. The rate of AIDS diagnoses for African-American women was 23 times the rate for white women. The rate of AIDS diagnoses for African-American men was eight times the rate for white men. What one may forget is that there are individual stories behind all of these numbers. Statistics to many of us are just that, but true knowledge, the kind that can change the world, leads to action.

Effective action in the case of African-Americans and HIV lies in getting tested for the virus as part of our routine medical check-up. Knowing your status is absolutely necessary in being responsible for yourself and others. It empowers us to act, think and play in a way that is equally honest for others and ourselves. The decision to get tested is not an easy one for most people. For many, the first steps toward truth lie in knowing about procedures, confidentiality issues, and local testing sites that can help you make the best decision about your personal health. The decision to get tested for HIV was emotionally complicated for me. If you are considering getting tested, it is important that you understand what the test consists of and exactly what the results mean. You should also know where to get tested, and speak with a trained and qualified counselor before doing so. Does this sound complicated? Does it sound difficult? Does it sound troublesome? Well, the unfiltered truth is that not knowing your status is all that and more, for yourself as well as for others.

For all the misconceptions about getting tested, one common area of confusion must be cleared up. Getting tested for HIV is not inviting your own death. Despite all we have learned over 25 years of living with and dying from this disease, many people still equate having HIV with images of frail, emaciated, and sickly people. Yet an HIV test does not determine whether or not a person has AIDS. When someone gets tested for HIV, he or she is not being tested for the AIDS virus at all, but instead for the presence of antibodies to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Antibodies mean that your body is fighting for you. Since the test detects these antibodies, which are produced by the immune system to defend itself against HIV, the test is called the HIV antibody test, instead of the AIDS test. A positive HIV result is not a diagnosis of AIDS. It does identify the presence of an HIV infection, and that the infected person should seek medical evaluation and treatment immediately. Early treatment can help ensure a better and prolonged health. African-Americans often get diagnosed with HIV when the virus has advanced to an AIDS diagnosis.

The earlier you know your status, whether you are positive or negative, the more effective actions you can take. No matter what you may have heard or even want to believe, only a doctor can diagnose someone with AIDS. The fact of that matter is that if you do have HIV, you will live with the virus, but when and if you get diagnosed will determine how successfully you do so.

So yes, I rise every morning knowing the truth, accepting the realities, and being dedicated to making educated decisions. Our community prides itself on these core concepts and until we are all committed to knowing the truth things will only get worse. My diagnosis was a wake-up call to know better, do better, and live better… so still I rise!