Wednesday is World AIDS Day, a day set aside to promote HIV awareness and research as well as prevention and treatment of the AIDS virus, which afflicts untold millions of people today. Our correspondent reports on one free grassroots screening effort in New York, where HIV infection rates are three times the national average in the United States.
Wednesday is wet and stormy in New York City, with winds up to 60 kilometers per hour, but that didn't stop Erica Sackin and her colleagues at the Planned Parenthood organization from setting up signs outside the large van that serves a mobile testing facility for HIV AIDS.
"It's so important that people know their HIV status," said Sackin. "It helps with prevention of transmission, [and] helping people get care right away. The sooner you get care, the better, if you find out your are positive. And in New York City, with the rate of HIV AIDS three times that of the national average, it is especially important for New Yorkers to make sure they get tested."
Indeed, according to Planned Parenthood, HIV AIDS is also the third leading cause of death for New Yorkers between the ages of 35 and 54. The disease disproportionately affects the poor and people of color. Over 80 percent of New Yorkers diagnosed with the virus are African American or Hispanic.
But while the hard statistics are alarming, the test itself is easy. It is performed with a simple oral swab, and results are available within 20 minutes.
This represents progress from the screening procedures in place during the early days of the epidemic, says Susan Heitner, who has been an HIV prevention volunteer since the 1980s.
"In those days, you had to have a blood test and it was a big deal," said Heitner. "But now, unfortunately, most people don't think about AIDS as much because it's not in the front of the paper every day... and people need to take that simple step of getting tested, and then they can protect themselves and the people they love."
Medical treatment of those infected with the HIV virus has vastly improved in the nearly three decades since it was identified. Yet stereotypes about who is vulnerable - and who should therefore be tested - persist, says Planned Parenthood spokesperson Nakia Hansen.
"It's not a niche issue," said Hansen. "It's not something that will pigeonhole and say it's a gay issue' or it's a sex worker issue,' [or] it's a moral issue.' We all need to be responsible for it. So anything that we can do to encourage safe sex, contraception, condom use, empowering women to make decisions about when and under what circumstances they have sex, those are all was to prevent the transmission of HIV and new infections."
Other World AIDS Day observances in New York include candlelight vigils for those who have succumbed to the illness, lobbying efforts for more scientific research into the AIDS virus and potential cures, and education programs in schools, universities, prisons and other institutions to promote prevention awareness.