June 27th is National HIV Testing Day and this brings an opportunity for all nurses across the nation to spread the word about the importance of getting an HIV test and to encourage patients and their family members to stay in care, and to support HIV prevention.
According to the CDC, approximately 1 in 7 people in the United States who have HIV do not know they have it. Getting HIV testing is the only way to know whether a patient has HIV. Knowing HIV status is crucial to keep patients and their family members healthy. The CDC has recommended that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 should get an HIV testing as part of their routine health care.
Here are four key things nurses can do to help support HIV prevention.
1. Inform patients and their family members about where to get HIV testing.
There are several testing services, health centers, and other resources that provide HIV testing. Patients can easily find HIV testing and care services through the HIV Testing Sites & Care Services Locator, or they can call 1-800-CDC-INFO (232-4636). Getting tested for HIV regularly (at least once a year) is an important part of good sexual health.
2. Educate patients about the window period for HIV test.
The window period is time between potential exposure to HIV infection and the point when the test will give an accurate result. The window period can be from 10 days to 3 months, depending on individuals and types of HIV tests. Patients who test HIV-negative during the window period will need a follow-up test after the window period to confirm the results.
3. Encourage people at higher risk to get tested more often.
HIV can affect anyone regardless of sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, gender, or age. However, certain groups are at higher risk for HIV, for example, sexually active gay and bisexual men and injection drug users. These groups may benefit from more frequent testing (for example, every 3 to 6 months).
4. Encourage patients living with HIV to prevent passing disease to others.
There are many actions that patients can take to lower their risk of transmitting HIV to their partner or family members. HIV can spread by contact with infected blood, semen, or vaginal secretions or from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth, or breast-feeding. Here are some examples to prevent passing HIV: taking medicines to treat HIV infection, using a new condom every time they have sex, telling their sexual partners that they have HIV, and encouraging their partners who are HIV-negative to get tested for HIV regularly.
As nurses, we have an important role to play, regardless of the area of expertise, in promoting prevention, testing, and early treatment of HIV.
Mary Wiske, RN, is a retired community health nurse.