HIV ribbon

Of the 1.1 million Americans living with HIV and AIDS, one in five is unaware of his or her HIV-positive status.

This statistic alone is one of the key reasons that clinics and community organizations around the country are providing free HIV tests today in support of National HIV Testing Day.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all Americans over the age of 13 be tested at least once in their lifetime. And those with ongoing risk factors — such as, sexual intercourse, men having sex with men and intravenous drug use — should be tested more frequently.

Yet, more than half of adults in the United States have never been tested for HIV.

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“We need to have conversations about HIV testing,” says Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention.

“It is unacceptable that we have 200,000 people who are walking around infected and they don’t know it, in an era where we have effective treatments for this disease.”

Among African-American men who have sex with men, a 2008 study showed that only two out of five men with HIV knew they were infected.

This is also the population hardest-hit, especially the young men in this subgroup. They make up more than three-quarters of new infections among black men and more infections than any other racial or ethnic group of men who have sex with men, according to the CDC.

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And, going undiagnosed for long periods of time raises not only the risk of transmitting it to others, but it worsens the chance of positive long-term outcomes. Reports show that one in three people with HIV learn their results too late to actually benefit from treatment.

On the horizon

A new initiative from Walgreens pharmacy clinics, the CDC, and local and federal entities announced just yesterday will provide HIV testing and counseling in 24 selected urban and rural areas for the next two years.

“This has the potential to change the landscape of who gets access to HIV tests,” Fenton says. He adds that one-third of Americans live within ten minutes of a pharmacy, making it another accessible option for HIV testing.

Depending on the person’s financial situation, those wanting to be tested in this program may receive tests for free, at a small cost or by using their own health insurance plans.

Over-the-counter home HIV tests are also expected to be released later this year. The kits will come with specific instructions on what to do if the test is positive and a phone number for counseling. However, some worry that the price may become prohibitive for those of lower socioeconomic status.

“Maybe not all will be able to afford this test,” Fenton points out, “So there will [still] always be a need for free testing and free access. Testing is prevention.”

African-Americans account for almost half of Americans living with HIV and nearly half of new infections each year.

For more information about testing centers near you, visit hivtest.cdc.gov.

Dr. Tyeese Gaines is health editor for theGrio.com and a practicing emergency medicine physician. Follow her on twitter at @doctorty.