Testing for HIV,STDs free, vital for health

By TaylorGleason

The number of Columbia students receiving free tests for the AIDS virus and sexually transmitted diseases increased by an estimated 300 percent since January when STDs were added to the already free testing for the human immunodeficiency virus service offered to students.

Testing is offered on the first Wednesday of every month from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on the 8th floor of the 1104 Center, 1104 S. Wabash Ave.

Mark O’Brien, coordinator of student relations in the Student Health and Support Office at Columbia said, “Columbia seems to stand out as a school that is aggressively approaching this topic and providing the best resources we can for our students.”

O’Brien has helped to piece this program together since he joined the Columbia staff three years ago.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2006 that about 40 percent of those diagnosed as positive for HIV progress toward AIDS within one year.  At that stage, treatment may not be as beneficial, so it is vital to be tested as soon as one thinks they have been exposed to HIV.

Testing for HIV and STDs is part of a sexual health program offered by the Office of Student Relations and Student Health and Support.  The program stresses prevention, testing and follow-up services.

“We’re trying to be a centralized hub for information and resources regarding our students’ sexual health,” said John Michael Quinn, assistant director of Student Relations.

The CDC recommends an HIV test every year for people who inject drugs or steroids, have unprotected sex with multiple partners, engage in prostitution or have been treated for tuberculosis, hepatitis or any sexually transmitted diseases.

HIV is unique because it hijacks cells of the human immune system (mostly T-cells) to use as host sites. HIV inserts its genetic material into the cell, uses the cell’s mechanics to replicate and then exits to infect more of the body’s T-cells.

Because HIV compromises the immune system, the victim can no longer fight off infections, especially that of HIV.

With other viruses—and for the first few months when HIV is introduced in the body—the immune system recognizes the invader and releases chemicals called antibodies that attempt to fight the infection.

Most tests do not screen for the genetic material of HIV, but instead for these antibodies, said Nikki Kay, spokeswoman for the CDC.

The CDC recommends frequent testing because in some rare cases antibodies may not be visible until six months after infection.

If someone tests positive for HIV or any STD, the office of Student Health and Support is equipped to offer counseling services and connect students to a local hospital that specializes in the care of young adults. “We’ll even walk there with you,” O’Brien said.

Columbia’s testing services are completely confidential. “We’re tracking the numbers,” Quinn said, but he added that the school doesn’t know who the people are behind the results.

The college hosts testing in cooperation with the non-profit community program Working For Togetherness. WFT was founded in Chicago in 1999. The organization offers tests and services for free to the college and all students.