Eastern Michigan University’s Wellness Center, located in the Snow Health Center, offers students and non-students free and confidential HIV testing and counseling on a walk-in basis every Thursday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The center, which offers male and female staff trained by the Michigan Department of Community Health, uses an oral swab test method that has a 95 percent accuracy rate if it’s been thirty days since the patient was sexually active.
The oral swab test does not involve needles and is very similar to taking one’s temperature with a thermometer. Patients can expect their test results within a week, but according to Michigan law they must pick them up within thirty days from the test date or the clinic cannot release the results.
The Wellness Center’s Program Coordinator Eric Ward said he has given at least four positive test results to clients during his 10 years of being a certified tester.
“The reality is there are folks who come in, and again no one identifies if they’re a student or not, there are HIV-positive people in our community period,” Ward said. “And it’s not some-thing to say, ‘Oh my God HIV is at Eastern’ as a headline. It’s more of the reality people have HIV, and people who know they have HIV tend to be more responsible.”
HIV, which can develop into AIDS, can be passed from one person to another through infected blood, semen or vaginal secretions coming into contact with an uninfected person’s broken skin or mucous membranes, which include the mouth, eyes, nose, vagina, rectum and opening of the penis.
Additionally, pregnant women with HIV can pass the virus to their baby during pregnancy or delivery, as well as through breast-feeding.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most effective ways to avoid contracting HIV is abstaining from sexual activity, being in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner and correctly and consistently using latex condoms. For individuals who are allergic to latex, the Wellness Center’s website recommends using plastic (polyurethane) condoms.
Of the estimated 48,298 newly-diagnosed HIV cases in the U.S. during 2010, there were an estimated 803 HIV-positive diagnoses in Michigan, which gives the state an estimated infection rate of 8.1 per 100,000 people, according to the CDC’s 2010 HIV Surveillance Report.
By comparison, the number of new HIV cases diagnosed in Michigan during 2010 may seem low when contrasted with the top three states with the most diagnoses reported: California had an estimated 6,417; Florida 5,782 and New York 5,321.
But Ward said the center only administered 162 tests last year and 27 percent of those clients were classified as high risk for infection, according to the anonymous survey filled out by the test recipients. The center’s risk factors are based on self-reported information the clients share with the clinic such as sexual behavior, frequency of condom use and choice in sexual partners.
During the 2010-11 academic year, there were a total of 28,285 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled at EMU, according to the university’s Institutional Research and Information Management website, and even if all 162 test clients were EMU students, that would still only amount to roughly 0.006 percent of the student body.
Ward said he believes some students do not get tested because of the stigma associated with the virus, for fear of finding they’re HIV-positive or because they’re not aware of the center’s free testing.
“We’re always out looking to bring more people in,” he said. “We want to make sure we balance that you don’t have to wait … for two hours to get tested and things like that, but also that you get the time to ask questions.”
Ward said the clinic’s staff pride themselves on being client focused and helping people maintain an HIV-negative lifestyle by identifying personal actions that put them at risk without judging the individual. However, he also said a person’s actions indicate what their intentions are.
“If you don’t wear a condom and you have sex with someone, you’re telling them either, ‘I want to get you pregnant,’ if your a heterosexual couple, or ‘I’m OK getting a [sexually transmitted infection]’ period,” he said. “Heterosexual or homosexual it doesn’t matter, if you don’t wear something to protect yourself you’re conveying something to that person.”
Ward said the clinic usually sees fluctuations in the number of people getting tested depending on the time of the year. For example, there is usually a spike in the number of tests performed just after spring break, on or around the Dec. 1 World Aids Day and during the fall and winter semesters when there is a larger number of students on campus.
Ward said the center receives funding from three sources: EMU’s Student Government offsets the cost of the oral test collection kits; free HIV test counselor training is provided by the State of Michigan to EMU, which is the only public university in Michigan to be directly sponsored or receive any kind of discount from the state; and EMU pays some university salaried employees to work as HIV testers for a set number of hours per week.
Editor’s note: The author of this article underwent HIV testing at the center to report on this story and was found to be HIV-negative.