Why you should get tested for HIV
“The main challenge with [testing for HIV] is that people are sure this does not apply to them. But what they don’t realize is that it’s not just about being safe. It’s about helping fight stigma – it’s about something bigger.
Thyasha Dissanayake is Marketing Manager at Adithi by The Arka Initiative, and was involved in organizing “Test with Arka”, a free HIV testing campaign. The testing campaign is in collaboration with the National STD / AIDS Control Program (NSACP) and will take place on November 6-7. It aims to normalize testing and living with HIV, according to Dissanayake, the experiences are deeply stigmatized in Sri Lankan society.
“It’s not even the test that’s the only stigma, it’s living with an STD [sexually transmitted disease] it is a greater shame and stigma, ”she explained. “People prefer not to know. Some people would rather die than live in shame – it’s so extreme, ”she said.
Tests and treatment
Sri Lanka has made significant progress in curbing the spread of HIV / AIDS since the first case was detected in 1987, notably through the efforts of the NSACP. “They are the ones who really have a grip on the disease,” said Dr Rashmira Balasuriya, head of mentors at the Arka Initiative.
Their first steps, she explained, were to identify groups of people at high risk of becoming infected and spreading the disease. “[They focused on] sex workers, men who have sex with men, transgender women, beach boys. And they really made a point of targeting these groups, educating them about prevention, using condoms, giving them free condoms and also encouraging them to get tested for HIV, ”said Dr. Balasuriya. “So for these high-risk groups of people, just going out and getting tested has been normalized and de-stigmatized to some extent. ”
The NSACP operates 30 clinics across the island, offering testing for various STDs, pre-test counseling and, in specific clinics, antiretroviral therapy, so that treatment is immediately available if a patient is HIV positive. Despite the accessibility of testing and treatment across the island, however, most people outside of the aforementioned high-risk groups are unlikely to get tested. “[They] don’t think about the long term effects of HIV turning into AIDS, and once it turns into AIDS you can’t go back, ”Dr Balasuriya said. “They don’t understand that once you have HIV you can suppress the viral load and live a fairly normal life. And that’s actually an important part of de-stigmatizing and standardizing HIV testing – to make you realize it’s not the end of the world, it’s not a death sentence.
Why people will not be tested
The main challenge Sri Lankan organizations face when advocating for HIV testing and treatment is social stigma. The taboo surrounding testing and the shame associated with living with an STD is one of the biggest barriers to stopping the spread of the disease. “The shame is so great that they don’t even think about their loved ones,” Dissanayake explained. “It hasn’t even crossed their minds yet, because they themselves don’t want to know if they have [HIV] or not, and it’s likely that even their partner doesn’t want to know about it. People choose to have nothing to do with it.
In many cases, said Dissanayake of his experiences working in sexual health education and awareness, young people wanting to get tested are held back by their older parents or guardians. “The kids would want to come forward and they would want to be a part of it, but the parents wouldn’t even hear about it,” she said.
“I think what people need to understand is that just because you tell a person or a child not to have sex, they’re not going to stop having sex, they’re going to always have sex, ”said Dr Balasuriya. “You might as well educate them with the appropriate knowledge, so that they can make better and more informed decisions about their sexual health. Then they will wear condoms, they will get tested regularly, they will understand that you can get HIV without only vaginal penetration, but also oral sex, anal sex. So what we want to encourage young people to do is take control of their own health, get tested and realize that you can be confident in the system that tests you.
The Arka initiative
The Arka Initiative works in the area of sexual and reproductive health, and although much of its work has been in tackling menstrual poverty and taboos surrounding menstruation, Dr Balasuriya said the idea of their next HIV testing campaign arose out of the understanding that testing for and living with STDs were largely overlooked experiences in Sri Lanka, due to the myths and taboos surrounding them. “Arka is trying to fill a gap that the National STD / AIDS Program is grappling with,” she said, “[by raising awareness among] the younger population and the population that is not at high risk.
“Why this testing campaign is an HIV testing campaign is because it’s the easiest STD to test,” said Dissanayake, “and it’s not just about getting people to coming to be tested, it is a question of making sure that the people who test positive can be well afterwards. As an organization, our goal is to cover all aspects of testing positive or negative, living with HIV or AIDS, or even supporting someone who is, ”she added.
“I hope this testing campaign leads to many more, and through it we hope to destigmatize not only getting tested for STDs, but also living with them,” she said. .
“Test with Arka” will take place on November 6 and 7 from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm at the National STD / AIDS Program (NSACP), No. 29 De Saram Place, Colombo 10. You can make an appointment at calendly.com/arkainitiative/testwitharka.