FITCHBURG — On Saturday, Sept. 7, Dr. John Chittick and his volunteer organization, TeenAIDS-PeerCorps, will set the world record for the number of youths tested for HIV in a public venue at the same time.
That, said Chittick, who grew up in Fitchburg but now resides in Virginia, is because his group is the only one in the world to take on the endeavor of testing youth ages 17 and up, live and in public, and it will happen in Riverfront Park on what has been named Fitchburg Youth AIDS Awareness Day.
He said HIV/AIDS is still an epidemic for young people in Massachusetts, with pockets of high incidence scattered throughout the state, and a large number of new diagnoses coming from younger, heterosexual populations. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nationally, one out of every four new cases is occurring among 13- to 24-year-olds, up from one out of 20 in the early years after the virus was discovered, he said.
“It used to be that young people were never considered at risk unless they were gay or doing needle drugs,” Chittick said. “That is no longer the case.”
He said his research is showing that 80 to 85 percent of youth HIV is being transmitted heterosexually, while only about 10 to 12 percent is transmitted homosexually and bisexually. The rest is largely due to needle exchange, Chittick said, and it is a small number because most young people are not exchanging needles. They are, however, increasingly becoming exposed to sexually transmitted diseases and other blood-borne infections like hepatitis through needles used in tattoos and body piercings, he said.
Quoting numbers from the CDC, Chittick said the majority of teenagers are sexually active by age 16, and by age 18, 51 percent have had three or more partners — yet 90 percent of them have never been tested for HIV/AIDS.
“The problem is that most young people do not believe they are at risk,” Chittick said. “They still see this as an adult disease, a gay disease, an African-American disease, a drug-needle disease, and that is the whole problem. … It’s not who you are, it’s what you do.”
Scared they will see people who know them or their parents, or that their parents will be contacted with the results — or just the stigma of testing in general — many teens shy away from testing resources like hospitals and clinics, he said. So Chittick is bringing the testing directly to the teens, made possible by over-the-counter HIV testing kits that can determine within 20 minutes whether someone is infected with 99 percent accuracy.
As soon as the kits were made available by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the fall, Chittick and his group immediately began buying them and going out to parks, fields, malls and wherever young people gather to offer those 17 and older free testing. The kits, which test for the virus through saliva obtained via a mouth swab, are normally $39 plus tax, which can be a lot of money for high school-age students, he said.
Under FDA rules and guidelines, parent or doctor permission is not required, Chittick said, but teens must show identification to prove they are 17 and older. He said counseling is given before, during and after testing, which is most accurate three to six months and later after the unprotected sex that led to infection.
Chittick said he warns the youth that the news could be good or bad, and encourages those who test positive via the swab to obtain a confirmatory blood test at a hospital or clinic to be absolutely certain of the result and to begin treatment as soon as possible.
AIDS is no longer a death sentence, he said, as there is treatment available, but the longer it remains untreated, the more havoc it can wreak on a person’s immune system. And the longer people go without knowing their status, the more partners — and future babies — they could infect, Chittick said.
Fitchburg Youth AIDS Awareness Day will begin with a Run to Stop Youth AIDS 5K Run/Walk at Coggshall Park, Electric Avenue entrance, to raise money for testing kits. Registration opens at 8:30 a.m., walkers start at 9 a.m. and runners at 10 a.m. Registration is $25 before Sept. 2 and $30 after. Prizes will be awarded for the top male, female and child, as well as the top pledge amounts.
The festivities move to Riverfront Park at noon, where there will be live music and dance performances, games, vendors and raffles.
Live HIV testing will begin at 2 p.m. Chittick recommends those who are interested in participating to be there at least a half hour beforehand. He will also counsel all attendees about HIV and the importance of testing, as well as where they may be tested privately if they do not wish to be tested at the event.
From 6 to 8:30 p.m., an evening soiree for adults will be held at the Fay Club, $30 donation per person or $50 per couple. There will be beer and wine tasting, hors d’oeuvres, tapas, desserts, music, guest speaker, testing demonstration, raffle and auction.
All funds raised throughout the day will be used to purchase testing kits for Montachusett-area youth.
Chittick said he was disappointed that he could not get any of the Fitchburg-based AIDS testing units to support the event and have a presence at it, but understands insufficient funding is an issue for many of them.
While most Guinness Book of World Record holders want to keep their titles, Chittick said he will be encouraging groups all over the world to beat his record, if it means more young people are getting tested and the stigma is slowly shattered.
For more information, visit www.teenaids.org.