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Mobile lab latest tool in HIV fight

A van outfitted with a laboratory where Baltimore residents can be tested for HIV/AIDS and get results in an hour is the city's newest weapon against the disease.

The 2004 full-sized Ford van, which will cruise neighborhoods in Northwest, West and North Baltimore starting early next month, will also serve as an educational resource, said Pierre Vigilance, an assistant city health commissioner. The van is equipped with a 13-inch, ceiling-mounted television monitor on which visitors can watch DVDs on HIV prevention and treatment. Visitors will be offered literature and condoms. Counseling will also be available.

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"We're trying to give a different look to prevention," Vigilance said.

The van is painted a sleek black with upbeat pictures of people in everyday activities. Its hip, inviting appearance is meant to attract the age group most at risk for contracting HIV - 15- to 40-year-olds - said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city's health commissioner.

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"I think [the van] makes a big difference," he said.

The mobile station will be staffed with several technicians. After watching the presentation on HIV prevention and treatment, visitors will be offered an opportunity to be tested for free, and they can wait for results that will be available in an hour.

Beilenson said the test results would remain confidential and locked in a safe in the rear of the van.

The van is an alternative to having a test done in a doctor's office, where test results are often not available for about a week, Beilenson said. The key to successfully fighting AIDS, the health commissioner said, is identifying people who are HIV positive.

Terry T. Brown, a vice president with Baltimore Behavioral Health, said the mobile lab is a good step for the city because many people won't visit doctor's offices for HIV information.

"I think it's a wonderful idea. Having this kind of mobility helps you" bring the message to the streets, Brown said.

The van is part of the city's Red Ribbon Outreach Project, which promotes early HIV testing. This year, the campaign began with posters and radio advertisements trumpeting the theme "Stop the Stigma."

The mobile station and media campaign were funded with a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a city Health Department news release said.

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The van will operate from 7 p.m. to midnight four nights a week. The nights have not been determined.

Because of funding limitations, the van will visit only neighborhoods in the 21215 (Arlington), 21216 (Walbrook), 21217 (Druid) and 21218 (Waverly) ZIP codes. Those sections of the city have the highest rates of HIV.


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