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State officials react to over-the-counter HIV test

It's as simple as an over-the-counter pregnancy test. Swab your cheeks, wait 20 to 40 minutes and your HIV status will show up on the white, plastic tester.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first at-home, immediate-result HIV test called OraQuick by OraSure Technologies, which is expected to be sold in retail stores nationwide come October.

"It is our hope that this additional tool will help to identify more people who are unaware of their status, slow the transmission from unaware infected persons to uninfected persons and help people to get the medical and emotional support and more importantly the anti-retroviral drugs they need to slow the progression of the disease from HIV to full blown AIDs," FDA spokeswoman Rita Chappelle wrote in an email.

The disease has come light years from the days 31 years ago when it was known as a death sentence. But about 1.2 million Americans are infected, and one in five of those infected do not know they are living with HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With such a staggering statistic, getting tested is of paramount importance, health officials say, so those infected can get treatment and live a long life; another reason is so HIV isn't passed on sexually or through the bloodstream to others.

About 126 Carroll County residents age 13 and up are living with HIV and/or AIDS as of June 30, 2010, which are the latest statistics available, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's Center for HIV Surveillance and Epidemiology. HIV attacks the T-cells - white blood cells that maintain the immune system - and the disease turns into AIDS when the T-cell count is at 200 or lower.

"When you live in Carroll County, people tend to think these sorts of things happen in Baltimore and Washington," said Elizabeth Ruff, the Carroll County Health Department's deputy health officer. "They don't tend to view it as a real problem in Carroll County, as opposed to other places."

Baltimore and Washington have HIV rates similar to Sub-Saharan Africa and are two of the nation's most infected cities, according to Joel Gallant, associate director of the Johns Hopkins AIDS Service at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Maryland ranks ninth in the highest number of AIDS cases in the United States, according to the CDC's 2009 data.

"People shouldn't feel that they're not at risk even though they don't live in a city," Gallant said.

That's why anything, such as the new OraQuick at-home test, is beneficial to the community, Gallant said. The test is about 93 percent accurate, so there is a possibility of a false negative.

"We're desperately in need of getting more people into care," Gallant said, adding "the benefits clearly outweigh the risk."

If the test shows up positive, OraQuick users should go see a doctor to make sure the result is accurate, Gallant said.

Previously, there was ample opposition to an at-home test.

"There was that concern that the diagnosis was so horrible that if people didn't have a trained counselor holding their hand, they would commit suicide," Gallant said.

But now, the diagnosis isn't as dreadful, as those infected can take a combination of three drugs that doesn't contain the severe side-effects of the past, Gallant said.

There's only one other over-the-counter test on the market that is available for purchase at retail stores, but it requires mailing a blood sample to a lab. It's called Home Access, and the FDA approved it in 1996, according to Chappelle.

However, another problem still persists. Since the first AIDS cases cropped up in the United States in 1981, there's been a stigma attached to the disease. Its original name was the Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, or GRID, and was thought to be a consequence of sexual acts between the same sex.

"The stigma is what [cause people to avoid] getting tested," Gallant said. "I think [OraQuick] is an alternative for people who prefer to do this on their own, but I don't think it completely takes the stigma away."

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