The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Breaking the stigma, one little pinprick at a time

By Matea Wasend

Eight Macalester sophomores headed to the Family Tree Clinic this week to mark World AIDS Day in a personal way: by getting tested for HIV.The eight, all board members of the student org Afrika!, hoped to send a message to org members and friends about the importance of getting tested-“whoever you are, wherever you live.”

“It would seem that this issue is more applicable to the African continent, but it is still relevant here,” said Afrika! co-chair Simbarashe Musasa ’13. “Once you’re in an environment like this where there’s sexually active people, you can’t ignore the topic of sexually transmitted diseases. But people do.”

Kwame Fynn ’13, Afrika! events coordinator, said the org has tried to get the word out about World AIDS Day and getting tested in the past, but to little success-so this year Musasa decided to do something different.

And so, on the afternoon of World AIDS Day 2010-Wed., Dec. 1-five students filed into the Family Tree Clinic and got their fingers pricked. They waited twenty long minutes for their names to be called, then stepped individually into clinic rooms to receive their results.

“It’s scary, I won’t lie,” said Musasa. “Before the test I was just thinking, ‘This is one test in my life which I cannot afford to fail.'”

In the clinic room, Musasa said, the doctor advised him on what to do if the test was positive. He advised him what to do if the test was negative. Then he gave him the results.

“After the test you feel more responsible,” Musasa said. “You can start planning your sexual life in a way that you know is responsible.”

For Fynn-one of the students who planned to get tested Thursday, before this paper went to press-the prospect of the test invoked a lot of anxiety. When he responded to Musasa’s email encouraging board members to take the test, he said, his fingers were shaking.

“It’s going to be my first time taking the test,” Fynn said. “There’s definitely some nervousness.”

But the anxiety was worth it, Fynn said-a tradeoff for the chance to dismantle the stigma around HIV testing. It’s a stigma that ignores continental lines, Musasa said; wherever they are, people are often more content not to know whether they’re negative than to know for sure that they’re positive.

But that, said Musasa, is simply irresponsible.

“If you’re sexually active and don’t know you’re positive, it’s in you and you’re sharing it with people,” Musasa said.

“I personally volunteered to do this for me, not for any other reason,” said Afrika! Secretary Selamawit Gebremariam ’13, who took the test on Wednesday. “I think it is better to be sure than just saying, ‘I know I don’t have HIV/AIDS.’ Knowing your HIV status for sure helps you adjust your life style before putting other people’s life in danger.”

In their attempt to break down the HIV stigma, the Afrika! board-members tackled an issue that is particularly relevant to the African continent. Despite a decline in AIDS rates worldwide, about 22.5 million people in Africa are HIV positive-almost 70 percent of the world’s total. In its 2010 report, Unaids called progress against the disease “halting and fragile.”

A committee of HIV experts projected Monday that the number of HIV positive individuals in Africa could rise to 30 million by 2020, far exceeding the reach of current treatment resources.

“Because treatment will only reach a fraction of those who need it … preventing new infections should be the central tenet of any long term response to HIV/AIDS in Africa,” Dr. Thomas Quinn of John Hopkins, who co-chaired the committee, told Reuters.

Prevention of infection starts with testing and awareness. But Fynn said that in Ghana, where he grew up, there is a definite stigma around getting tested.

“There’s an expectancy from everyone to know your results,” Fynn said. “So we are doing this testing as a personal issue-individuals get tested, and the disclosure of their results is not something they get pressured about.”

The students aimed to set an example by getting tested themselves, and hoped the message could reach multiple audiences: Afrika! members, the Macalester community and the participants’ friends and family in Africa.

“When I talked about it on Facebook this morning, I was talking to two audiences-Macalester and the people back home,” said Musasa, who is from Zimbabwe.

“I took part in this project today to hopefully encourage other people to go out and get tested, not because they doubt themselves but to protect themselves and others,” said Waruiru Eddah Mburu ’13, who got tested on Wednesday.

Musasa said Afrika! board members will return to the clinic to get tested again next year; the group hopes that this project is just the beginning.

“For me, it’s my personal dream that next year we’ll walk in a file in double digits, triple digits, that we will storm the clinic,” Fynn said. “I’m hoping for an exponential growth. Maybe down the line on World AIDS Day we can get a clinic to come test people on campus.”

“Maybe one day, at Mac,” Musasa added, “every student will know their status.

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