Stigma Over HIV Testing Gradually Abates

By Beacon Staff

When Rebecca Metteer took over as the Flathead City-County Health Department’s HIV services coordinator six months ago, she became immediately aware of the tricky relationship between Montanans and AIDS prevention.

“You know what Montana’s like as far as being very independent,” Metteer said, “and not willing to talk about things and not willing to get care, and if they do get care they think, ‘Are people going to know about them?’”

But in those six months, Metteer said she has seen a steady increase in the number of people getting tested for the virus in Flathead County, which is both encouraging and timely because on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, Flathead joined a statewide effort called the “I Know Montana” campaign to increase HIV testing awareness. The effort is an extension of the successful “I Know Missoula” campaign and extends from Libby to Glendive. As part of Flathead’s campaign, Metteer said she and Linda Bodick, the health department’s HIV and STD intervention specialist, will go to local high schools and discuss the importance and process of getting tested; work with the violence-free crisis line; do presentations and provide information at Flathead Valley Community College; and talk at alternative schools like LASER.

The campaign, which ends on Valentine’s Day but implements permanent programs, is designed to create open discussion of HIV and encourage testing, which is simple, anonymous and free, Metteer said. All it takes is a cotton swab in the mouth or a pinprick on the finger and 20 minutes later you have the results. Last year, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines recommending that everybody between the ages of 13 and 64 be tested as part of the routine medical exams.

“Everybody should know their HIV status,” Metteer said.

“It’s that one that doesn’t know they’re infected,” she added, “that’s infecting everybody else.”

HIV testing presents difficulties anywhere because of the stigma attached to the virus. Montanans, however, are especially complicated, Metteer said, not only because of their independence, but also because of the fear of gossip that permeates through small communities. But Metteer said she is seeing improvements in the Flathead in both the number of people getting tested and the willingness to openly discuss the issue.

“I think that people are really beginning to open up and be aware,” Metteer said. “People are also getting more open to getting tested. They’re seeing it now as part of taking care of their health instead of seeing it as this weird, uncomfortable, embarrassing thing.”

Wendy Doely, the health department’s reproductive health services director, said the number of Montanans overall getting tested for HIV has dropped in the last two years. A major reason, she said, is that AIDS isn’t as prominent in daily headlines as it once was and this creates problems. Just because the headlines have dissipated, she said, doesn’t mean the problem has.

“I think there is a fairly significant amount of apathy around the issue of HIV anymore,” Doely said. “The more we put it out there and say this is an issue…I think that’s going to help increase people’s access and awareness.”

Official estimates of reported HIV-positive individuals in the Flathead range from 11 to 50 – Metteer counsels 30 at the health department. As of June, Montana as a whole had 488 individuals – 408 were men – officially living with the HIV virus. Missoula and Yellowstone counties had the highest amounts, with estimates ranging between 101 and 220. There are a couple of main reasons for the large discrepancies in the estimates, Metteer said. One, she said, is studies show that one in four people who have HIV don’t know it because they haven’t been tested, a statistic the “I Know Montana” campaign seeks to improve. Another reason is that some people who feel uncomfortable getting tested here travel to places like Spokane for testing and therefore don’t figure into the statistics.

Doely said some people feel uneasy going to an official agency like the health department. For them, she said, there is Curtis Workman. Workman is an employee of Montana Targeted Prevention (MTAP) and does not work for the county, but provides free anonymous testing and counseling.

“I just think it’s good that people know about other alternatives,” Doely said. “We don’t care where they get tested.”