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Surviving & Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture

HIV Testing

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Blood tests to detect the presence of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) first became available in 1985, after scientists and public health officials confirmed that the virus caused AIDS. Testing made it possible to diagnose HIV before symptoms surfaced and quickly became one of the most widely practiced responses to AIDS. While many public health officials and citizens considered testing a way to take control of one’s own health, this sentiment was not always widely held.

Until 1987, when the medical establishment introduced AZT (azidothymidine), the first widely available, yet exorbitantly expensive, drug to slow HIV infection, many service providers, particularly ones who worked with communities of gay men, argued against testing. They feared that violations of privacy would outpace positive support and treatment options for people who tested positive. With testing, the prospect of a sudden, painful, seemingly random AIDS-related death was replaced with a similarly terrible future of stigma, isolation, and misdirected hatred resulting from a positive HIV test.

These campaigns encouraged people to overcome their fear of the disease and the stigma it produced by stressing personal and social responsibility as well as the availability of information, support, and, later, treatment if infected with HIV.