A Southeast Washington hospital has begun to offer its patients a test that allows them to know their HIV status within two weeks of contracting the virus.
United Medical Center last month began offering expedited testing to its patients after securing a grant from Gilead Sciences’ HIV Focus Program that allowed it to install a machine to conduct the early screenings. The biotechnology company has also partnered with Whitman-Walker Health, Providence Hospital, Unity Health Care and Family and Medical Counseling Services through the D.C. Human Service Administration to further expand HIV testing in the nation’s capital.
“It’s our best chance of arresting infection, reducing transmission and preserving people’s immune function,” Dr. Lisa Fitzpatrick, medical director for United Medical Center’s Infectious Diseases Care Center, told the Washington Blade during a Dec. 12 interview. “The problem with finding them early though is making sure the technology is accessible to people so we can identify them early.”
Fitzpatrick noted to the Blade those with HIV can have as many as 2 million copies of the virus when they first become infected because it replicates “out of control.” People living with HIV typically have 200,000 copies of the virus or less when they test positive.
Traditional HIV screenings — blood tests and rapid tests — only detect HIV antibodies two to three months after infection. A person who gets tested before that window will see a negative result.
“If you feel fine for up to three months, you could still be having sex with people but you’re really infectious,” said Fitzpatrick. “You don’t even know it.”
Fitzpatrick added the machine has already detected three people with early infection and high viral loads since United Medical Center installed it.
“Imagine if we had a broad enough campaign where people knew about it and they knew that they were in a position where they could have placed themselves at risk,” she said. “They can come and see us if they have those flu-like symptoms.”
A 26-year-old gay Southeast D.C. man who asked the Blade to remain anonymous tested positive for HIV at United Medical Center on Dec. 1.
He said he had what he described as flu-like symptoms for about a week before he learned his status on World AIDS Day, which is also his birthday. The man told the Blade he feels he became infected at some point in late October.
“I was a little surprised because I had just tested negative,” he said during an interview at United Medical Center after he met with Fitzpatrick. “I knew it was a possibility because of the type of sex that I had engaged in.”
The D.C. Department of Health’s HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, Sexually Transmitted Disease and Tuberculosis Administration’s annual epidemiology report shows 15,056 people in the nation’s capital – or 2.4 percent of Washingtonians – were living with HIV at the end of 2011. 5.4 percent of black men in D.C. had the virus during the same period, compared to only 1.1 percent of white men in Washington.
Men who have sex with men and heterosexual contact were the two leading modes of transmission among newly diagnosed HIV cases, but the report found they decreased 46 percent from 2007.
Nearly a quarter of MSM who took part in a study the D.C. Department of Health released in September said they were previously unaware of their status. HIV rates were higher among men of color, but the study found they were more likely to use condoms with male partners than white men.
80 percent of D.C. residents who learned they were living with the virus in 2011 were linked to care within three months of their diagnosis.
“Given the complexity and the severe consequences of a condition like AIDS, for us to say that 30 years later we have made the enormous progress that we have made is absolutely phenomenal,” said D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray in October during the 27th annual AIDS Walk Washington.
Fitzpatrick’s patient with whom the Blade spoke on Dec. 12 said he has received health insurance, medications and other information about HIV since he learned his status.
“I’m a person living with HIV now,” he said. “I plan to keep taking my medicines, stay on my regiment, get my viral load down, become undetectable and live what we consider a normal life. I’m looking forward to all of that.”
Fitzpatrick added early HIV testing and immediately linking those who test positive into care remains an essential element to combating the epidemic.
“HIV needs to get integrated into our conversations about health and wellness and chronic diseases,” she told the Blade. “We still have so much to do.”