National HIV Testing Day: A status you should always know

OPINION - If you’re like most folks, you probably think that if you don’t have HIV, then you don’t need to think about the virus. But you would be wrong...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

OPINION — If you’re like most folks, you probably think that if you don’t have HIV, then you don’t need to think about the virus.  But you would be wrong.

Regardless of whether or not you are HIV-positive, HIV affects you.  HIV is our issue.

In 2007, my cousin Kathy lost her battle with AIDS, leaving behind three teenage daughters.  The struggles her girls endured without the guidance and nurturing of their mother reminds me that HIV is not just about one person.  It’s about families, neighborhoods, and communities.

It’s frustrating — just a few years after Kathy’s death, our knowledge about ways to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS has increased tremendously.  We know if she were tested earlier or made testing a regular practice in her life, she might have been able to stop the spread of her own illness.  She might be here today to witness graduations, play with her grandchildren, or be the advocate we know she would be called to be on this issue.

As black women in particular, given all we do know, it’s even more frustrating that HIV/AIDS continues to spread so rapidly.  Many of us have heard time and again that there are high rates of HIV infections in our community. Black Americans comprise only 14 percent of the nation’s population but make up 44 percent of new HIV infections each year.  Black men who have sex with men — regardless of whether they identify as gay or bisexual — account for the highest rates of HIV infections in the nation.

This is especially true in states like Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, where newly diagnosed AIDS cases are up to 17 times higher for black women than for white women.

These statistics have been repeated so frequently that they have made us feel powerless and no longer shock us into action.  But the irony is that we actually do have real power to prevent the spread of HIV when we are more diligent in protecting ourselves and focus on safeguarding our health.  That’s why National HIV Testing Day is so important.  And that’s why Planned Parenthood, which provides information, testing, and treatment — without judgment — is so engaged in this fight.

We’ve made a lot of advances over the last three decades in treatment of the virus.  Women and men with HIV are living longer than ever before.  We’ve also made progress on decreasing the stigma considerably — even though some people continue to hold a biased view against those who are HIV-positive, many more know that any one of us could become HIV-positive.

The key is we have to know our status so that we can be treated if necessary and so that we do not unwittingly infect our partners.  Now that testing and counseling are fully covered under insurance, we have more access to resources to reduce our risk of contracting or spreading HIV.  We all must practice safe sex regardless of our status.

The silver lining is that in 2014, we can put this knowledge to good use. We can and must serve as the first line of defense to stop HIV/AIDS from spreading further.  Make today the day you get tested.  With so many resources newly available, and organizations like Planned Parenthood offering rapid HIV testing and counseling in a safe environment, there’s no reason not to work towards a world where one day we will be HIV-free.

Today, on National HIV Testing Day, as I remember my cousin Katherine, I challenge all of us to take action, be vigilant, get tested. The work begins with you.

Alexis McGill Johnson is the executive director of The Perception Institute and national board chair of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Follow her on Twitter  @alexismcgill.