FITCHBURG — Fourteen young people aged 17 to 23 swabbed their mouths and waited 20 minutes to see if they tested positive or negative for HIV at Riverfront Park Saturday afternoon.
There is a Federal Drug Administration-approved home testing kit now for HIV — human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS. The kit can be bought over the counter in any drugstore and used in the privacy of one’s home.
“I didn’t know that the test existed, that you could buy it at a drugstore and I was shocked,” said 23-year-old Kayla Hawkins, who took the test at the park. She works in a drugstore and asked her manager if they had any of the test kits. She found one on the shelf and said she has never sold one in all the time she has worked there.
TeenAids executive director John Chittick brought 14 testing kits to Fitchburg and asked for volunteers between the ages of 17 and 24. He has been working for over 20 years in Fitchburg, and now in Virginia to raise awareness that HIV/AIDS is what he calls a “silent epidemic” among young people, as young as 13.
“When I tell parents that their children are vulnerable to HIV, they look at me dumbfounded. Boys and girls are equally sexually active, and the majority start at 16 years old. But kids that age don’t want to go to hospitals and clinics to be tested. They tell me that they can’t bring their friends, they are afraid of being recognized, they have to turn off their cellphones, there are too many forms to fill out,” said Mr. Chittick.
Which is why he has started a campaign to let young people know that they can test themselves at home. The kits can be purchased by those 17 and older, with parental permission if they are younger than 17.
The home kits used were free to the 14 volunteers, and it was the first time that a public testing was done.
“You’re part of history now. No one else is doing this, but I want this record broken tomorrow, until everyone is tested. Are any of you nervous?” asked Mr. Chittick. The young people looked at each other; one young man raised his hand, but most just smiled.
At the end of the 20 minutes, all of them tested negative. The kits are said to be 99 percent accurate. If any of them had tested positive, they would have been counseled to seek further testing at a clinic or hospital.
When asked if they were going to tell their friends about the home kits, all nodded or said yes, and more than half of them raised their hands when asked if they thought any of their friends were “living dangerously.”
Cody Cahalane, 17, of Fitchburg said he had never been tested before, was sexually active and raised his hand when asked about his friends.
“I have friends who have unprotected sex, do drugs, alcohol. You see it a lot in high school. There’s a line I won’t cross that my friends have and I will tell them about this test and to go get it. I never heard about this until today. My friend called me up and told me about it this morning,” said Mr. Cahalane, who got in his car and drove to the park to take part in the testing after that phone call. He added that he was “extremely relieved” to find that he tested negative.
Jessica Knott, 23, of Devens has a cousin back in her hometown in Georgia who just found out she had AIDS. “She thought that she would never get it. She’s only 27. I don’t want the same thing to happen to me, I’m glad I took the test and it was free today,” said Ms. Knott.
Mr. Chittick congratulated the 14 on their negative results, and asked them to use Facebook and Twitter to tell all of their friends about the home kits.
“We want to eliminate the stigma around testing. It’s better to know and get treatment. But I think it is a moral outrage that the kits cost $39. Most teens don’t have $39 to spend just like that. The CDC has been recommending that all Americans 13 years and older be tested regularly, but that isn’t happening,” said Mr. Chittick. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in four new cases of HIV in the U.S. occurs among 13- to 24-year-olds.
“HIV is spread exponentially. We are doing the same thing with public testing, to spread awareness exponentially. Young people are dying because of ignorance. These kids are innocents and don’t understand the consequences of what they are doing. Our kids are at risk,” said Mr. Chittick.
Michelle Richards, 21, of Paxton said she took the test “to give others the courage” to take it themselves.