220 people take advantage of free rapid HIV testing
 125 women and 95 men tested 

PHILIPSBURG—The number of people turning out to the annual Scotiabank Regional HIV Testing Day in St. Maarten continues to grow, thanks to ongoing awareness and the gradual erosion of the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS. Those two factors led to 220 people receiving a free rapid HIV test in Scotiabank on Saturday and the diagnosis is good, as only two people need further testing.
AIDS Foundation President Dr. Gerard van Osch said the turnout showed that "people continue to trust in the testing process." This was the largest number of people to date to be tested at the Scotiabank event, where only HIV is tested for free for the public.
He praised American University of the Caribbean (AUC) Medical School students and other volunteers for their invaluable support, as well as French-side counterparts Les Liaisons Dangereuses SIDA and AIDES, and Scotiabank.
Scotiabank Country Head Eli Bendaly told The Daily Herald he was pleased to see that the number of people being tested was "increasing year by year." He described the testing day operation as "a well-oiled machine" with support of volunteers, including some bank staffers.
In terms of numbers, the testing day in 2009 saw 176 people learn their HIV status ; in 2010 there were 166, and last year 173. Another 71 were tested in November 2011 at a mini-testing day at the bank "in spite of the heavy rain and stormy weather."
Dr. Frederic Olivo of SIDA commended the organisation of the testing day. "It was a good feeling to be part of this." This was the first time the three HIV/AIDS groups had collaborated on a practical level. This group also provided the rapid tests used on Saturday. "We had lots of test kits and why not share ?"
This test cuts the result time significantly. The French-side groups carry out smaller, community-based testing days amounting to some 1,500 tests yearly.
A cross-section of the people who came out to be tested learnt about the day from friends, partners and social networks, in addition to traditional media promotion. Several said they "just wanted a check-up" or they had attended previous testing days so this was a follow-up.
There was an atmosphere of joviality and comfort at Scotiabank’s Philipsburg branch as the 125 women and 95 men were pre-counselled individually, tested and given results by an army of trained volunteers.
People waiting to be tested and to receive their results chatted with each other and were very much at ease, unlike the scenario in a hospital where the feeling is more clinical. The bank’s cubicles and offices were transformed into the pre-counselling, testing and results rooms. The only indication of the medical nature of the day was evident in the testing booth, where AUC students pricked the finger of each attendee and drew a small amount of blood for the test.
The entire process took less than 30 minutes and included a results/post-counselling session by a trained volunteer who gave advice based on the person’s sexual history. The entire process is confidential. People were identified by a one-time user number rather than by name.
The testing day was dominated by young people who attended in groups or by themselves. Some showed up for the test and after the experience persuaded their friends to do likewise. One group of some eight youngsters happily shared their "negative" results with each other in the lobby of the bank.
A young man said he had read about the test in the newspaper and had been reminded about it as he walked on Boardwalk Boulevard (the Great Bay beach promenade) during his lunch hour. "I did the test before and I am happy I came again. I even called my girlfriend to come. I hope she does."
At least two young mothers came in tow to the testing day with their babies.
The testing day had Spanish and Haitian Creole translators in addition to the English-speakers, allowing the foundation to cater to a larger turnout of these two groups.
The testing day here kicks off Scotiabank’s Regional HIV Testing Day 2012. Other countries around the region will follow next week, including Belize which is testing for the first time. Scotiabank partners in the region with Caribbean Broadcast Media Partnership CBMP to help heighten public interest in and awareness of HIV testing.
With the modern medication against HIV/AIDS, this infection has become a chronic, manageable disease in which actual symptoms can be prevented with early detection and treatment. HIV continues to affect a growing number of persons in the community and is a life-changing infection that can be prevented.

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