While college is a time known for its drunken parties and sexual encounters, this stage of experimentation for young adults puts them at risk for contracting human immunodeficiency virus.
‘People under the age of 25 are the fastest-growing group of people who are getting infected with HIV,’ said Amy Buch, associate director of the UC Irvine Health Education Center.
Fortunately, the Health Education Center offers free anonymous testing for UCI students, faculty and even community members in Irvine.
‘We’ve had anonymous HIV testing here for about 10 years,’ Buch said. ‘[It is free because] when the program got started, there was actually funding set aside for students to get anonymous HIV testing. It’s a part of student fees. In addition, we get a grant from AIDS Walk Orange County. We’re the only university in Orange County that gets money from AIDS Walk.’
While the thought of having HIV is daunting enough, most students are even more afraid of someone finding out that they’re being tested for HIV, which Buch assures should not be a concern for students.
‘When students come for testing, they’re assigned a number and the only way they can obtain their test results is through that number,’ Buch said. ‘There’s nothing in there that your mom and dad can find out. So when students come in and tell us their sexual history, it is 100 percent completely guarded.’
I was confident that I didn’t have HIV, but as I sat down for my own test, I still couldn’t help but feel nervous. I would also like to think that I am a responsible person when it comes to sex and have a good idea of the sexual history of the people I’ve had sex with. But having had unprotected sex was enough to make me start doubting my confidence.
The testing session for every student begins with a risk assessment administered by Buch. Buch, who has had experience working with people living with HIV prior to coming to UCI, does everything she can to make the student feel comfortable. For anyone who is wondering why she tries to make you feel comfortable, you’ll understand once you go and take a test.
The risk assessment portion of the test is a series of extremely personal questions about your sexual history. I became a little more nervous as I repeatedly assured myself that divulging these secrets to Buch was for a greater good. In fact, Buch will discourage students from taking the test if she sees that a student’s sexual history has not put them at risk for HIV.
After the risk assessment portion, Buch administers the HIV test, which is an oral test called OraSure. Yes, I said ‘oral.’ For anybody who is wary of needles, rest assured that no blood will be drawn.
‘We use the OraSure test, which is an oral test,’ Buch said. ‘We’ve used it for three years, but the Food and Drug Administration has approved it longer than that. With the exception of one student, every student I’ve talked to prefers the oral test. We’ve had students leave when they’ve found out it was a blood test.’
A common question from students is whether or not the blood test is as reliable as the oral test.
‘The oral test is as reliable as the blood test,’ Buch said. ‘The reason why we switched from the blood test to the oral test is because with the blood test, you need a trained phlebotomist, a person who can draw blood. So as a staff member, I love [OraSure] because we can just give the test here in my office without another person.’
After receiving a concerned e-mail and a phone call, Buch wants to remind students not to confuse the OraSure test with the OraQuick test. The OraQuick test is a test that has resulted in some false positives.
‘They both have ‘Ora’ in the name, so I was afraid that people would think that our test wasn’t good, but OraSure is good,’ Buch said. ‘The difference is that OraQuick gives the results in 20 minutes, but the student gets the results from OraSure in a week.’
With the OraSure test, a small pad is placed in the mouth between the cheek and gum for two to three minutes. Afterward, the sample is sent to the Long Beach Health Department.
‘The vial gets picked up and goes to the Long Beach Health Department,’ Buch said. ‘Their lab is super-accurate. We got to go through and see how they go through the process. Not that other labs aren’t accurate, but we want to make sure we’re guaranteeing the best for our students.’
Afterward, the student can return to the Health Education Center to get their results in person with the identification number that was assigned to them. Your test results will not be released if you send a friend to get them.
‘As a test counselor, I want to give the results in person. If that person has HIV, I want that person to know that there is support available,’ Buch said.
Another reason that Buch wants to give the student the results in person is because if a person tests positive for HIV, Buch will provide them with a list of places that they can get help.
‘Annually, an average of 300 to 400 students come in to take the test, but we’d actually like to see more,’ Buch said.
According to Buch, less than one percent of the people who come in to get tested for HIV test positive.
Because it takes six months for the human body to develop the HIV antibodies, the OraSure test is 99 percent accurate in showing everything that happened six months prior to taking the exam. So if a student believes they have contracted HIV within six months of taking the exam, Buch recommends that they take the test again. But to make sure the test results are even more accurate, one should refrain from sex or any behavior that puts them at risk for HIV until after they have taken the test.
Lastly, Buch suggests that anyone who has any suspicions of having HIV to come in and get tested at the center.
‘If anybody is worried about having HIV and needs peace of mind, they should take the test,’ Buch said. ‘You can speculate forever, but there’s nothing like having a piece of paper telling you that everything is OK. We certainly recommend that people who aren’t sure of their sexual partner’s HIV status, people who know someone with HIV, people who have been sexually assaulted or people who use injection drugs should take the test.’
Amanda Rodriguez, who graduated from UCI in 2004 with a BA in psychology and social behavior, was recently hired as Coordinator for Sexual Health Programs, wants students to know that the Health Education Center has the students’ best interest in mind.
‘I think we provide a safe environment and you’ll get the most up-to-date information and it’s the most cost-efficient,’ Rodriguez said. ‘We actually really care about the students and this is a comfortable setting. I’m all about providing a comfortable setting because it is a touchy subject and it is personal and you want someone who is going to take care of the information that you’re giving them.’
Students can get tested for HIV at the Health Education Center on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 1 to 4 p.m.