Could the contents of an inconspicuously packaged USPS envelope be a long-awaited W-2 form just in time for tax season? Maybe it’s an extremely late holiday card.
Or it could be an HIV rapid self-testing kit from Emory University’s Together TakeMeHome program, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) hopes will increase HIV status awareness nationwide, especially in Black and brown communities—so much that the agency is putting $41.5 million toward the initiative over the next five years.
Together TakeMeHome’s director Dr. Travis Sanchez said the discreet packaging and at-home testing option alleviate HIV stigma, which prevents people with or at risk of infection from seeking treatment and support.
“The basic points of the program are that we were trying to improve people’s access to HIV testing,” said Sanchez. “People have various reasons why it may be difficult for them to get into regular physical facilities to get an HIV test, so we wanted to reduce the barriers as much as possible for these communities to make sure that they have access to HIV tests.
“And also to make the experience easy enough for them so that way, maybe they make this a more routine part of their general health care and sexual health process.”
“HIV self-testing gives people the power to test on their own terms,” said Robyn Neblett Fanfair, the CDC’s acting director of Division of HIV Prevention. “Removing barriers to testing like stigma, discrimination, and access to physical services improves health, advances health equity, and moves our nation closer to ending the HIV epidemic.”
Sanchez said the program hopes to send more than 1 million tests over the next half-decade nationwide. The kits are free and are available for order online by anyone over age 17. Health insurance companies will not be billed.
To be clear, Sanchez said self-testing will not replace traditional HIV screenings, and those suspecting recent exposure should not order a kit. The goal is to get the process started, especially for those unwilling to step into a clinic.
While HIV treatment has advanced significantly over the past three decades, attitudes and stigma often haven’t. The CDC traces HIV stigma to specious ideas conjured up during the 1980s that are rooted in homophobia, disinformation and outdated information.
“When we’re thinking about stigma as a barrier to healthcare management, the other thing you have to think about is kind of intersectional stigma—how people are perceived or are treated differently in healthcare settings, because of other intersectional characteristics that they have,” said Sanchez. “It could be race, skin color; [it] could be language barriers [or] gender. All of those could potentially be barriers to accessing healthcare through a clinic setting. The program itself doesn’t address that directly, but what it again does is maybe give people an additional tool to take the first step and try to address their healthcare.”
The CDC is primarily looking to reach Black and brown communities for the program, employing the agency’s “Let’s Stop HIV Together” campaign for outreach. Grindr, a prominent gay dating app, is also working on pushing out kits, reported NBC News.
Still, what good is an at-home test for people with no home? Last December, activists rallied on World AIDS Day, demanding Gov. Kathy Hochul to invest in rental assistance for New Yorkers living with HIV.
“As we push forward onto progress in ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic, we stand ready to fight for legislation to help people infected with HIV meet basic needs, including safe, affordable housing, food, and transportation,” said Assemblymember Harry Bronson last winter. “We cannot end this epidemic while 10,000 or more individuals with HIV across the state remain homeless or are unstably housed. Housing is healthcare and I will not stop fighting until we meet this need.”
Sanchez said Together TakeMeHome is currently working on solutions.
“The first step in the program allows people to have the test kits delivered wherever they like, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be at home—just somewhere where they can receive the kit,” he said. “In the future iterations of the program, we’re already having discussions with other collaborators and community organizations about potentially working with them where they could be part of our network to get kits ordered and potentially [received] them other members of the community.
“That may be particularly important for folks who either don’t have or can’t have a place for things to be delivered to, or may actually need a private space to conduct the test itself.”
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.
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