March 6, 2007

S.A. Resolution Calls for Free HIV Test at Gannett

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Correction appended. See below.
The Student Assembly recently began a campaign to bring free HIV testing back to Cornell. Gannett Health Services had offered this testing for free until the fall of 2005, when cuts in the New York State funding forced the price up to $25 per Elisa (HIV) test.

On Feb. 22, the Student Assembly passed Resolution 29, marking the first step toward success in bringing free HIV tests to the Cornell campus. In addition to the unanimous passage in the Student Assembly, this resolution was also unanimously passed by the University Assembly.

According to Kate Duch ’09 SA liaison to the University Assembly, “Similar resolutions will be presented to the Graduate and Professional Students Assembly, the Faculty Senate and the Employee Assembly. Based on their responses, we hope to approach the administration with broad support from all constituencies and representative bodies at Cornell.”

Providing free HIV tests can be a key to containing the spread of the AIDS epidemic. With early detection, affected individuals can get medication to curb the disease and prevent it from progressing to full-blown AIDS.

“HIV is part of a world health crisis. Many people do not realize the severity of this issue here in the U.S., especially at the local level” said Calvin Selth ’07, LGBTQ SA Representative.

Many clinics and universities in various countries provide free HIV testing, and there is an increasing demand for more. Several American universities offer the testing for free, including Columbia and Yale.

“Some students are concerned with anonymity and the chance of the HIV test showing up on their credit card bill,” said SA Representative Adam Gay ’08.

Gannett records show that the number of students tested for HIV has actually increased by over 100 students per year since the fee was implemented. However, this is believed to be the result of Gannett’s elimination of the need for an appointment: any student can be tested for HIV whenever he or she walks into Gannett for any purpose.

“It would be great if Cornell could offer free testing for many sexually transmissible infections. In addition to HIV, there are two other very common STDs: Chlamydia and HPV. Gannett administration understands the concerns and will continue to review options for HIV testing” said Nianne VanFleet, associate director of nursing and clinical services at Gannett.
Duch and Selth agreed the cost of the test may prevent some students from being tested.

“The HIV test Gannett provided at no charge in previous years was an excellent testing option — it was confidential, anonymous and simple. The increased price adds to many obstacles that delay students getting tested for HIV, such as stigma, fear and anxiety about testing,” said Selth. “Some students cannot afford the charge and others may be hesitant to bursar the fee because they wouldn’t want their parents to see it and ask questions.”

“It is not only necessary for Cornell to offer HIV testing, but it is crucial. Given the severity of the virus and the stigmas attached to it, we need to eliminate as many barriers that prevent members of the Cornell community from getting tested as possible,” Duch said.

Resolution 29 aims to decrease the burden on students. It states, “The combined factors of the stigma, students’ budgets and the fear associated with HIV testing are best addressed by reducing obstacles to testing itself, such as cost.”

The main impediment to free HIV testing is the estimated $18,000 it would cost the University. According to Selth, there are a number of ways to approach this problem. One idea is a small fee paid for by every member of the Cornell community. “There are nearly 20,000 students at Cornell, and the annual cost of making HIV testing free is $18,000; this means that per student this would be less than a dollar.” said Selth.

“We are optimistic that the University will find alternative funding measures given the life-saving nature of this test, and the fact that total costs would only be around $1 per student,” said Gay.

According to some medical professionals, offering free testing not only benefits the individuals who may have the disease, but the community as well.

“Free HIV testing is important from both the individual and the public health standpoint,” said Dr. Meir Sagy M.D., chief of Pediatric Critical Care Medicine at Schneider Children’s Hospital in New Hyde Park, N.Y. “For the affected individual, the sooner the HIV is discovered the sooner the treatment therapy can begin; in this way both life span and quality of life can be increased significantly. From a public health standpoint, it is crucial to identify and alert the affected individuals so they change their sexual behaviors and prevent themselves from contributing to the spread of this disease.”

Sagy continued, “There are a whole slew of medications available to individuals; they do not cure the disease but they slow the progression and prevent the growth and virulence of the virus. Early and comprehensive treatment will increase the longevity of the affected individual.”

According to Sagy, HIV screening is offered to newborn babies in many states throughout the U.S., including New York. The testing has multiple positive effectsin that it allows for early detection of the disease in the child, it could reveal whether the mother of the child has HIV and it could prevent exposure to the child’s caretaker.

Gannett offers two types of confidential HIV tests: blood testing for $25 and OraSure (oral swab) for $45. Clinical counselors and HIV test counselors provide counseling and information concerning sexual safety and the HIV test in general.

“Overall it’s a win-win situation. Free HIV testing would allow for healthy students, happy parents, and a good reputation for Cornell University; the school would be considered a safe place where diseases such as HIV are contained,” Sagy said.

Correction appended: “S.A. Resolution Calls for Free HIV Test at Gannett” states that any student can be tested for HIV by walking into Gannett. However, HIV tests at Gannett must be requested before the appointment. The Sun regrets this error.