Knowing that in 20 minutes their lives could be turned upside down, hundreds of people --- many of them teenagers and college students --- confronted their fears of having HIV by getting tested Friday at The Mall West End in Atlanta.
With HIV rates rising among young African-Americans, particularly in the South, health professionals targeted the busy mall, offering the free tests as a prelude to Sunday's National HIV Testing Day.
"We usually don't get this young crowd," said Patricia Brown, executive director of the group For Our Common Welfare, which sponsored the testing.
"The kids are getting smarter, I think," she said. "The public is stepping up and saying that this is a problem."
For those who signed up, many of them nervous, counseling preceded and followed the tests.
"Anxiety levels are always high," said Brown. "In 20 minutes your whole life can change."
Test-takers were able to choose a standard blood test, which returns results on HIV and syphilis in a week, or the OraQuick rapid antibody test, which uses a finger-prick blood sample to give results within 20 minutes.
Brown said the OraQuick test is more than 99 percent accurate.
The Bush administration, which has called for all Americans at risk of contracting HIV to be tested, said Friday it will permit wider use of a new oral test for the AIDS virus that also gives results in 20 minutes. The relaxed rules will allow screenings in HIV counseling centers, community health centers and doctors' offices.
Thousands of HIV testing events are under way this weekend in communities around the nation. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one-fourth of the 850,000 to 950,000 Americans living with HIV don't know they have the virus. Blacks, who make up 12 percent of the American population, already account for 39 percent of AIDS cases and 54 percent of new HIV infections.
Kamal Armour, 26, of Atlanta said he came to the mall to be tested after hearing about the event on the radio. While he found the health workers sensitive and informative, the test was a sobering experience, he said.
"I know what I've been doing," he said. "Getting your results makes you want to make the right decisions."
To stem HIV in the black community, Armour said it is the responsibility of individuals to know their HIV status.
"People are afraid," he said. "It's scary for someone to lie" or to be infected and unwittingly infect other people, he said.
"If you've had more than one partner, you should get tested," said Armour.
Overall results of Friday's testing were not available. At last year's event, Brown said, five or six people tested positive for the virus. Counselors helped them find quick and inexpensive treatment, and accompanied them to their first treatment session.
Tamara Stewart, project coordinator of the Chauncey H. Robinson Youth Foundation's Project Teach, said it is important that people not see HIV and AIDS as terminal illnesses.
"HIV isn't a death sentence anymore," said Stewart, whose group was among the test sponsors.
Until the rapid blood test was approved in late 2002, routine tests took as long as two weeks to provide results. As many as 8,000 people a year who tested positive at public clinics never returned to learn their results. Health officials believe the rapid oral test may attract even more high-risk people, those who shun blood tests.
Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution