A New Innovative Initiative! Learn more about TeenAIDS-PeerCorps’ newest program, Teen-Testers. and how anyone can learn their HIV/AIDS status.
Dr. John Chittick, TeenAIDS-PeerCorps’ Executive Director, announced on May 31, 2012 that TA-PC would lead a bold, national campaign called “Teen-Testers” to promote HIV testing, both in public and privately, for all teenagers without arbitrary age restrictions. A recognized international expert in the youth AIDS prevention field, Chittick is a former Harvard lecturer who has developed innovative responses to teen HIV prevention.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced on June 26, 2012 that OraSure Technologies of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania won final permission to proceed with sales of “OraQuick”, the first, over the counter HIV testing allowed in the U.S. (see New York Times article of July 3). Consumers no longer have to do to a hospital, clinic or doctor’s office to get tested and wait up to ten days for results. Now they can buy a kit to test themselves at home and get accurate results in 20 minutes. Importantly, the new test kits use oral swabs and saliva, not the traditional blood testing by needle.
“Teen-Testers” is an innovative model for young people to help spread the word to their peers that testing is now easy, quick, available and accurate. This is important because of the debilitating stigma attached to AIDS among youth and the fear of going to an AIDS clinic for testing by possibly disapproving medical staff. Dr. Chittick’s research from extensive interviews and focus groups strongly shows that teens prefer to be tested away from adult supervision and parental observation.
Oral swab (saliva) testing is very simple to do with accurate results in 20 minutes. Traditionally, HIV testing has been done by medical personnel taking blood by needles for over 30 years. The samples are sent out to labs with results being ready after a week or longer. The anxiety from waiting that long for the critical news is detrimental to teens’ emotional and psychological health.
Dr. Chittick said, “Teen HIV/AIDS is spreading exponentially — making adolescent youth one of the fastest growing groups at risk. Despite years of well-funded prevention programs, more teens are becoming infected with HIV than before. It is absolutely necessary that sexually active youth understand they must know their status before they pass HIV on to unsuspecting partners — or else many innocent youth will have their lives shortened prematurely.”
Dr. Chittick is personally training young people to be Teen-Testers. They are empowered to take to the streets and utilize social media like Facebook, Twitter and texting to tell their generation that the risks are real when one is sexually active. To live safer lives, they need to get tested. Because of the continuing stigma that most youth feel is associated with HIV testing and AIDS, the vast majority have never been tested (only about 10%-12%). Yet the U.S. military tests all incoming recruits (whether 17 or older) and then annually thereafter. If it is good for youth serving in our defense forces, it is good for high school students too.
Dr. Chittick says, “Even the best government statistics on youth HIV rates are not accurate. They are guesstimates only. If 90% of teens have never been tested even once, we are not well-informed about the true figures. We know that the majority are sexually active by age 16 (both boys and girls). Parents and politicians may choose to ignore this reality but a head-in-the-sand approach is not smart. The CDC has advised family physicians to test teens annually starting at age 13 and up. Yet by every measure, this directive is not being followed.
The OraQuick test kits come with directions about HIV and telephone numbers to call in the case of an HIV-positive result. Telephone counselors offer advice but two weeks of training and a manual to follow is not really sufficient. Teen-Testers is offering youth-specific counseling that has been tested in the field, including by phone and email directly with Dr. Chittick. TA-PC is publicizing home testing on YouTube and nationally televised PSAs and the website: www.teenaids.org.
Dr. Chittick is very concerned about the cost of home test kits. They are currently on sale for approximately $39 plus tax, a price too steep for many teens.
“OraSure has a monopoly at present and can charge what they choose. Competition will lower the price and we are lobbying Congress and the FDA to speed up approval of other test kits. We need to encourage OraSure to make the cost per kit more affordable. Initially, OraSure was thinking of charging $29 but opted to go for greater profits. It’s youth that will suffer,” Dr. Chittick stated.
TA-PC is launching an online petition drive to urge the FDA to rescind its policy that teens under 17 cannot buy the HIV home test kit.
“Why is this restriction even necessary? If 16 year-olds want to buy a home test kit, let them. Learning their status is their human right,” said Dr. John. “If they can drive a car, they can choose to test their own bodies. We want to encourage more testing, not prevent it.”
Teen-Testers has launched a social media campaign to request a lower price.
Dr. Chittick recognizes that getting teens to agree to be tested is an important step in making them aware that AIDS is a potential threat to their generation when having unprotected sex.
Teen-Testers conducted the first-in-the-nation HIV testing for youth in a public venue on June 8, 2012. It was held at a Sonic Drive-In along a busy thoroughfare in Norfolk, Virginia, the city with the highest AIDS cases in the state. Two testing vans participated. One from the City of Norfolk offered free HIV testing by needle and EVAN (Eastern Virginia AIDS Network) tested using the oral swab method. Thirty summer interns helped plan the event that included live music, a car wash and bake sale. A video was made of the event and posted to YouTube for other groups to view and replicate.
A month later, an AIDS Attack was held on the urban campus of Tidewater Community College in downtown Norfolk. Almost no one encountered, students and professors alike, were aware that home test kits were going to be put on sale at local drugstores in the fall without a doctor’s prescription.
On August 10 another event was held at a large park that featured sports events, lunch and free oral swab testing by EVAN. Most teens were willing although the oral swab testing was done inside a van with privacy curtains.
The first street testing began in November in cities of the heavily populated Hampton Roads region. With over one million inhabitants and home to the largest naval installation in the world, the area has a highly mobile population and many youth. It is also a region where HIV/AIDS and STIs (Chlamydia and Gonorrhea) rank very high nationally.
Using kits donated by an anonymous donor in memory of a college-age grandchild, Dr. John personally began his one-man testing in Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Norfolk and Virginia Beach, the state’s largest city. He approached youth in groups, first asking if they wanted to hear information that could save their best friends’ lives. Once their attention was captured, he showed a test kit and explained that one teen could volunteer to be tested in front of their peers. In over 45 “street” tests, rarely did he encounter a group where one person did not volunteer. Some said they were curious; others said they liked the idea of having their friends present; but most all said they did not want their parents to know.
On two tests, there was a positive result (one test was damaged and thus inconclusive). During the 20 minutes it took to get the results, Dr. John counseled the small groups of three or more and explained it is better to know because there is medicine available (not a cure but help to survive into adulthood). He also explained that sometimes there could be false readings (either positive or negative) and if positive, the youth should immediately get a confirmatory test at a local clinic.
The largest Teen-Testers event of 2012 was held at Old Dominion University on December 1, World AIDS Day. It centered around a fraternity/sorority Hop Off dance competition that attracted 420 youth who showed up to be entertained and tested by oral swab. Two-time Olympic Gold Medalist LaShawn Merritt made a surprise visit and spoke to the audience stressing the importance of testing and living safely. So many youth stood in line to be tested that EVAN’s supplies ran out and 100 eager youth had to be turned away – a great disappointment to Dr. John and Teen-Testers.
Testing stopped in the cold months during December only to begin in late March.
First Public Testing in front of large groups and TV cameras
On April 6, 2013 a trained team from TeenAIDS with video cameras went to Norfolk’s North side Skate Park with a test kit. The first youth approached by Dr. John said yes without any hesitation. He sat down while his girlfriend watched. A crowd of about 10 gathered around during the testing. One youth said he thought it was “weird” for his friend to do it publicly but the boy jumped up and said, “Cool it. I want to do it and you should support me.”
A parent got out of his car and questioned what we were doing. Despite explanations and printed materials explaining the educational mission, he called the Norfolk police. Within minutes a cruiser appeared. Dr. John and Fatima spoke to the officers who called in their observations. Soon a second cruiser arrived. After consulting city code books and police headquarters, they decided that nothing was amiss and the testing continued.
The following day, Sunday, April 7th, the nation’s largest public testing event was held at Virginia Beach’s Mt. Trashmore (a former landfill site that attracts upwards of 10,000 visitors on a sunny weekend. As part of TA-PC’s “5K Run to Stop Youth AIDS” and Family Fun Day, two young volunteers came forward and willingly took the oral swab tests. Twenty minutes later, the results were publicly announced as WAVY TV filmed. Both youth tested negative.
Dr. John praised them for being “pioneers in a new social movement to get teens tested because it is better to know.”
The next visit to Mt. Trashmore was not welcomed by city officials… [source]
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