Senior Class Project: HIV Tests for All. Is This Really a Good Idea?

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The Wall Street Journal reports on an unusual senior class project at a private high school: the entire class of 80 students will be offered free HIV tests at a testing event to be held in the gym. This is apparently the first time HIV testing has ever been carried out in such a manner in a high school.

Writes Geoffrey Fowler:

Getting tested is voluntary for the students. But [Oliver] Hamilton [the senior who came up with the project] believes building up peer expectations will ensure a high level of participation — and serve a public-health goal. Normally, he says, kids worry that getting tested might be interpreted to suggest they are promiscuous. “But if 70 kids get tested and 10 don’t, people might wonder why those 10 are the ones who are scared,” he says. “Critical mass is really important.”

[The school’s] testing day is a trial run for what HIV education advocates hope could become a new tool for combating the disease as it spreads into more communities. Testing programs for sexually transmitted diseases have been largely absent at secondary schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that as of 2009, 46% of high school students had had sexual intercourse.

Urban School — a pricey San Francisco private school (tuition is “more than $32,000” a year according to the Journal) — is located in what was once the center of the hippie universe, Haight Ashbury. It’s unlikely to be harboring a huge HIV epidemic: in 2009, the last year for which complete numbers are available, there were only 4 new cases of HIV in youth aged 13 to 19 in all of San Francisco. The majority of new cases these days are seen in adult gay men, African Americans and IV drug users.

Hamilton’s project was inspired by his work with Dr. Marcus Conant, a pioneering AIDS doctor who has treated the disease in San Francisco since the start of the epidemic and who will be working with the school on it. Only one school administrator expressed concerns about the project to the Journal, worried that if teens don’t reveal their results after they (privately) receive them, they will be stigmatized as positive.

But no one seems to have asked: what will happen if someone actually is found to be infected? It’s important to raise awareness of HIV and it’s certainly the case that, thankfully, people now live much longer and healthier lives with HIV than in the bad old days when it was typically a rapid death sentence.

It seems to me, however, that such a project — well-intentioned as it may be — has the possibility of putting a teenager in the untenable position of immediately having to reveal a life-threatening diagnosis to peers. Or having to lie about it.

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