L.A. Launches Campaign to Test One Million Residents for HIV

On the eve of World AIDS Day, the City of Los Angeles kicked off an initiative to test a million Angelenos for HIV. KPCC's Brian Watt says for some elected officials, that meant an appointment at an East L.A. clinic.

Nurse: What I'm gonna do is swab your gum line on the top and also on the bottom. Okay, so if you can open up.

Brian Watt: In a matter of seconds, a nurse from the non-profit AltaMed health center gave Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa a rapid swab HIV test. The results come back within 20 minutes. By the end of the program in the parking lot of the Ramona Gardens housing project, Villaraigosa could stand under an umbrella and share his results.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa: I'm negative, but what's important is not whether people are negative or positive. What's important is that you take the test.

Watt: L.A. City Council members Jan Perry and Jose Huizar, and Congresswoman Linda Sanchez joined Villaraigosa in an effort to beat back the stigma and fear associated with HIV testing. They cited statistics showing that HIV is on the rise among blacks, Latinos, and Asians.

But the statistic driving this citywide initiative to test a million people is this: A quarter of Angelenos who are HIV positive don't know it.

Dr. Felix Carpillo: And that's why the infection continues to grow, because that pool of individuals are having sex and they don't know that they are passing the disease.

Watt: Dr. Felix Carpillo directs HIV services for AltaMed.

Carpillo: We know that once they know their status, patients tend to really, you know, behave better, and by understanding, they can just protect their partners.

Watt: But the challenge, says Carpillo, is getting people to take the test and find out. He says many are stuck in the past. They think only certain kinds of people get the virus that causes AIDS. And that AIDS is a lethal disease that kills quickly, as it appeared to in the 1980s. But Carpillo says that's changed. Anyone can get AIDS, but it doesn't mean they're gonna die a fast death.

Carpillo: We have options in treatment that can help the patients live a very productive and long life, as much as they were going to live anyway, if they take the medications.

Watt: The initiative in Los Angeles will expand HIV testing at more than 50 hospitals and clinics. The money to do that comes from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Gilead Sciences, and OraSure, which makes the rapid swab test.