Testing, testing: HIV check easy as 1, 2, 3

On Sunday, June 27, folks from a local nonprofit will test the capacity at Gravity Lounge. But they won't be looking for seating space or fire code violations; they'll be offering confidential HIV screening.

"We wanted to start this year to reach out to younger people," says John Watkins, the new director of development for the AIDS Services Group. He and other ASG workers and volunteers organized a benefit concert featuring donated performances by musicians including the Naked Puritans and Karmen to draw in the 15-35 set.

That age group, says Watkins, is particularly vulnerable to infection and is unlikely to seek screening.

"There are 42 million people living with HIV/AIDS," says Kara Smith, a 28-year-old peer educator for ASG. Of those, Smith says, 12 million are young people ages 13-24. And while many of those new infections are happening overseas, particularly in Africa, Smith and Watkins say it is a mistake to ignore the threat right here at home.

In Albemarle County, says Smith, one person is infected with HIV every 12 days; frighteningly, Virginia ranks sixth in the nation for new HIV cases.

Fortunately, testing positive for HIV doesn't mean what it used to. New medications offer hope, and some people, says ASG's Chris Radice, have begun to compare AIDS to diabetes, as more of a chronic illness. Even the test itself has become less traumatic as over the past few years an oral swab has replaced the needle, taking all the pain out of the procedure.

Watkins hopes that HIV testing will become a "regular" part of routine wellness tests. But he cautions against those who– because of new treatments– might let down their guard, especially when it comes to protecting themselves.

"We don't know," he says, "whether next year a new strain could show up that would put us right back at square one."

The ASG benefit concert happens at Gravity Lounge on June 27 from 6-10pm. Tickets are $10 at the door, and free HIV testing is available to anyone who stops by.

ASG's Vicky Squires, John Watkins, Chris Radice, and Nikuyah Walker hope HIV testing will become a health care routine.