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AIDS Initiative Targets Those Unaware They Have The Disease

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A new, rapid HIV test lies at the heart of a major effort, starting Friday, to bring people who don't know they're infected with the AIDS virus out of the shadows and into a doctor's care.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to buy nearly 250,000 rapid tests for $2 million and distribute them to state health departments as part of a major HIV-prevention initiative, the test's manufacturer will announce today. The announcement is one of a flurry of activities planned by AIDS advocacy groups, AIDS service providers and their corporate partners to underscore the importance of testing on Friday, National HIV Testing Day.

''It's tragic that more than two decades into the disease, we still have 250,000 people who don't know they have it,'' CDC Director Julie Gerberding said Wednesday. ''Our goal is to help people to know their status and get treated.''

Taken together, these programs also mark a major new trend in AIDS prevention. With a $35 million push from CDC -- through its initiative called ''Advancing HIV Prevention: New Strategies for a Changing Epidemic'' -- HIV tests are rapidly becoming a critical component of prevention efforts, along with traditional programs designed to teach people most at risk to protect themselves.

''Knowing one's HIV status is one of the most powerful motivators of behavior change,'' Gerberding said. ''Most people who know they're HIV-positive take appropriate steps to protect their partners.''

By vastly expanding access to the newly approved test, which is made by Orasure Technologies, the CDC hopes to reduce the number of people who have HIV and don't know it. Of an estimated 900,000 HIV-positive people in the USA, about 30% either have not been tested or never returned for their test results. Many won't find out they're infected, or seek treatment, until it's too late. CDC hopes to shrink that population to just 5% of those who are infected.

''The most important aspect of this new, rapid test is that each year 10,000 people in the U.S. test positive but never return for their test results,'' says Mick Ellis, director of testing and counseling for the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C., the nation's largest AIDS service provider. ''With the rapid test, we'll be able to give them their results in 20 minutes.''

The test poses challenges to those who administer it, however. All counselors must be trained not only to administer the test and process the results, but they also must be prepared to break the news to people who test positive. ''This is no small thing,'' Whitman-Walker counselor Rod McCoy says. ''You have to be prepared for whatever the reaction might be.''

The large-scale rollout begins Friday with programs in cities across the USA. Among them:

* A ''Say Yes to the Test'' rally at the Studio Museum of Harlem by hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons of Def Jam Records. Sponsored by Abbott Laboratories, Orasure's marketing partner, the rally is one of dozens of events planned in dozens of cities. ''It's targeted at cities with large African-American and Latino populations,'' says Heather Mason of Abbott. About 70% of new HIV patients are in those groups.

* A Kaiser Family Foundation-Viacom partnership. Using expertise from foundation experts, Viacom will broadcast HIV information on a number of shows, including Becker, The Parkers, One on One and Girlfriends. In a taped broadcast Thursday night, Big Tigger, host of BET's Rap City, will take the test himself.

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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