COLUMBIA — The 23 students taking Women’s and Gender Studies at MU didn’t go to class Thursday.
Instead, they chose to be tested for HIV as part of free testing organized by Sexual Health Advocate Peer Education and MU Student Health Center to mark World AIDS Day.
For Heidi Malizia, a junior majoring in biology, it was the first time she was tested for HIV other than for donating blood. Students are not as aware as they should be of AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases because they often don't get beyond the sexual education they receive in high school, she said.
“A lot are very afraid to get tested because they are afraid of the results,” Malizia said.
About 70 students went to the Student Center between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Thursday to get tested for HIV, according to Heather Eastman-Mueller, curriculum coordinator for SHAPE and instructor for the Women’s and Gender Studies class. Last year, about 100 people were tested.
Cale Mitchell, executive director of Rain-Central Missouri, said he was pleased with the turnout, taking into consideration that many people are still reluctant to get tested.
Rain works with HIV patients across 37 counties in north-central Missouri, trying to connect people with health care. The organization works with about 400 people who have been diagnosed with HIV, Mitchell said.
There were 451 people living with HIV last year in 33 of the counties in north-central Missouri, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. The number has grown every year since 2001, when there were 310 cases of HIV in those counties.
The increase is explained by the new HIV cases that add up every year and not necessarily by the increase in life expectancy, Mitchell said. “Certainly, life expectancy is longer than ever before, but we do continue to see new cases on a regular basis,” he said.
There were 10 new cases of HIV in Boone County in 2010. Over the past four years, the number of new cases ranged from seven to 10.
All the people that Rain assists have low or no incomes and are under-insured or not insured, Mitchell said.
The organization also works with college campuses.
“There are not a lot of HIV cases, but there are a lot of STD cases,” Mitchell said. “That also means they (students) are not protecting themselves. If they are exposed to STD, they are exposed to anything.”
World Aids Day acts as a reminder for people to get tested, Eastman-Mueller said. “It’s like with breast cancer," she said. "You know, I’ve been putting off getting a mammogram, I know I need it, why not go and do it now?”
The Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services offers free HIV testing. It is available by appointment Thursday mornings or at a walk-in clinic from 1 to 4 p.m. Thursday.
Rain provides free HIV testing Monday through Friday at its office, 1123 Wilkes Blvd. Suite 250.
The Student Health Center also provides HIV testing for a fee.