The Importance of Being Tested / La importancia de la prueba

From The Temas Blog

Did you know that 27 June was HIV Test Awareness Day?  I confess that I didn’t.  But I had wondered why I am suddenly seeing some many television ads these past two weeks about the importance of getting tested, and why Tyra Banks decided to get tested on her syndicated TV show (no, I don’t watch her show — I just saw the commercials for it).

I wonder if the media and health authorities have been equally active in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC).  According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), they are.  I’d be interested in hearing from readers in LAC about whether they have matched their promises with visible action.

In my first “Basics” piece, I argued that good diagnosis is usually a prerequisite for good environmental policy.  The same holds true of health policy.  It is difficult for LAC governments to plan, design, budget and implement adequate public health programs to address HIV/AIDS in their countries if they can only guess at the infection levels/profiles in their populace.

For example, if you ask WHO or PAHO or UNAIDS how many people in LAC received AIDS treatments in 2006, they will respond that the estimates range from 55% to 95% (yes, estimates, not records).  Given what I read from NGOs in the field in LAC dealing with HIV/AIDS patients, the latter figure is simply absurd.  Some might even question the 55% estimate as well, particularly outside of Brazil.

Pregnant women tested for HIV vs. those treated in select countries (click to enlarge) (data: WHO/UNAIDS/UNICEF)This gives you an idea of the uncertainty in LAC statistics regarding HIV/AIDS.  If you ask about how many people have been tested, they’ll give you estimates of absolute numbers — but will shy from estimating what percentage of the population at risk this represents.

Then there’s the individual level.  If you have engaged in risky sexual behavior, have a partner you’re unsure of, want to reassure your current or prospective partner, or have received a blood transfusion you have nagging questions about, you only have two basic choices: test and know, or wait and pray.

I agree with health officials that it’s better to get tested.  If you are not infected, it will be a relief to know that.  If you are infected, the earlier you find out the better, since that leaves you with more potential treatment options.  And of course there’s the consideration of others you might unwittingly infect.

The ad depicted at the start of this post, which appears in an innovative Brazilian media campaign profiled in PAHO’s Perspectives in Health magazine (English, Spanish), represents the enormous emotional burden one can carry around when you don’t know whether or not you are infected with HIV.

As the PAHO releases copied below mention, until recently not nearly enough testing was done in LAC nations.  This is in part due to the lack of availability of the right diagnostics — many public clinics did not offer it.  Reportedly Brazil, El Salvador and Mexico have finally addressed fully the public clinic testing problem,  but many of their neighbors have far to go yet.

Another factor was cost of both diagnostics and treatments (after all, some reasoned, why spend money on diagnosis when you cannot treat?), although this is coming down, particularly with the help of initiatives such as the Clinton Foundation’s.

A third factor….(for the third factor and the rest of this article, visit The Temas Blog)


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