Bronx Announces Effort To Test Every Adult in Borough for HIV
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene on Friday will begin a three-year effort to test every adult living in the Bronx -- which has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS-related deaths in the city -- for HIV, the New York Times reports. According to the Times, the campaign will initially work to make voluntary testing routine in emergency rooms and storefront clinics, where city officials say that state consent procedures deter physicians from offering the tests. City Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden said that routine testing "would mean if you came into the emergency room for asthma or a broken leg, we test everyone for HIV, if they're willing."
Although Manhattan has the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS cases in the city, the Bronx, which has a lower-income population, reports more deaths from the disease. Public health officials say the high mortality rate is associated with people not getting tested until it is too late to effectively treat the virus. According to city officials, 40% of the borough's 830,000 people ages 18 to 64 have undergone HIV testing in the past year, and half of the remainder, about 250,000, have never been tested. The campaign intends to first test this group at 40 designated sites, including clinics, community centers, churches and emergency rooms. Monica Sweeney, an assistant health commissioner for HIV prevention, said the city has not set aside money specifically for the program, but that it would absorb the $12 cost of each test.
The Times reports that several HIV/AIDS experts have described the effort as the most aggressive in the country. Donna Futterman -- director of Montefiore Medical Center's Adolescent AIDS Program in the Bronx, which helped New York City develop the program -- said, "What's new here is that we are implementing it on this large a level," adding, "The Bronx has 1.3 million people. It's bigger than most cities, bigger than Boston, bigger than Washington. We're talking about a significant urban population." Frieden -- who has enlisted the support of Bronx elected officials, health care providers and clergy members -- said the health department chose the Bronx because it has good relationships with clinics and hospitals there. City officials also said that Bronx residents already are more likely to be tested than adults in other boroughs.
However, Frieden said the efforts come after years of lobbying to overhaul strict state regulations -- which have changed little since HIV/AIDS was first discovered in the 1980s -- that require patients to give written permission for testing after being counseled on the process. According to Frieden, New York's consent law is one of the strictest in the country; CDC recommends that written consent and pretest counseling requirements be dropped.
Futterman said that she hopes that making HIV testing routine by including the test as part of a patient's blood work will change the mentality surrounding the test and spur state legislators to ease consent rules. "Everything in AIDS has changed except the old testing paradigm," she said, adding, "Old school was that you had to tell them everything that could happen. That starts to seem cruel. If you go for cancer diagnosis, they don't make the doctor say what you're going to do if your mammogram is positive."
According to the Times, under the new initiative, hospital administrators in the Bronx have agreed to test in emergency departments, where physicians have felt the requirement interferes with more immediate health needs, but still follow state consent laws. Futterman said she has carefully constructed a script for physicians that follows state law but condenses what is typically a 20-minute counseling and consent process into five minutes. She added that using the process has helped her increase the proportion of her patients being tested to between 20% and 25%, up from 10%.
In an attempt to make HIV testing less intimidating, the city also will issue public service announcements and information on its 311 hotline. It also is posting tear-off sheets with addresses of testing centers in places like check-cashing stores, where residents can discreetly slip them into pockets. Sweeney said, "It's not about one group doing it, it's about everybody doing it." Community organizations, universities, churches and politicians are going to have all their constituents that come to them for other services, they're going to use it as an opportunity to say, 'Get your HIV test'" (Hartocollis, New York Times, 6/26).