A state-mandated program to test for the AIDS-related antibody HTLV-III will be launched at the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center in Hollywood in September, joining testing services already being offered at two centers in Long Beach.
The two test centers opened in Long Beach in late June, one run by the city's health department and another operated by The Center, a gay and lesbian community center. Kate McKey, a city epidemiologist, said about 800 people have been tested, "and we saw a tremendous rise in numbers after Rock Hudson was diagnosed with AIDS."
The Hollywood and Long Beach centers, the only ones in the county, were selected as key sites for detecting the HTLV-III antibody, whose presence indicates past exposure to the HTLV-III virus, which has been linked to acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS.
Although the antibody has been detected in AIDS victims, medical experts do not know whether its presence in healthy individuals means they will get AIDS.
County officials said they selected the Hollywood center in part because it is located near West Hollywood's large gay population. Homosexual men, intravenous drug users and hemophiliacs or people requiring many blood transfusions are considered high-risk groups for contracting AIDS.
2 Testing Sites
The centers in Long Beach serve the second-largest concentration of gays in the county, said health officials. McKey said the city purposefully created two sites for testing, one at a gay center and one at a city public health facility.
"We thought some heterosexuals might be more comfortable getting the test from the city" rather than going to a gay-oriented community center, she said.
McKey said results of the Long Beach tests were not immediately available. However, county officials have estimated that about 40% of those who are tested will have positive test results for the antibody.
Dr. Martin Finn, medical director of the county's public health programs, said the state has mandated that counties with blood banks set up separate test sites for the antibody in order to protect blood banks from possible AIDS contamination. Confidential testing will be available to anyone wishing it, state officials said.
Finn said the Legislature approved the test-site program because it was feared that high-risk individuals worried about AIDS would donate blood "simply to be tested for the HTLV-III antibody." The test is conducted on all blood donated in blood banks, and blood containing the antibody is destroyed.
The test-site program was authorized by Gov. George Deukmejian in April and began in June, with Los Angeles among 31 counties that have been told by state health officials to make the testing available.
"We don't want anybody using the blood-donating system as a way to test for HTLV-III," Finn said, noting that infected individuals might not yet have indications of the antibody in their system, but could still pass the HTLV-III virus along in their blood.
"So far our reports from the blood banks and American Red Cross indicate that has not been a problem in this county," he said.
Finn and Robert Gates, director of the county Department of Health Services, predicted that only a fraction of the county's estimated 450,000 high-risk residents would approach the center for testing.
Both cited the efforts of county health officials and some gay leaders who have publicly discouraged homosexuals and other high-risk populations from being tested. Finn and others contend that the tests can cause undue fear in those who test positive and a false sense of security in those who test negative.
Their view has been challenged by some gay leaders and medical experts, who contend that people should find out as much as possible about whether they are at risk for contracting or spreading AIDS.
Robert McLane, a psychosocial worker for AIDS Project Los Angeles, said his organization has taken no policy stand on the debate but has some advice for those thinking of taking the test.
"We want people to ask some questions before they take the test . . . such as how will the results help you, and what will you do if they are positive? The difficulty in the past is that people who have tested positive freaked out about it, and this kind of hysteria is something we want to avoid. We feel it's really up to the individual."
But the county's Finn said he feels people should not take the test "unless they have a very great need." For example, he said, a surgery patient who received many transfusions and fears possible exposure to AIDS might want to take the test to allay his anxiety.
"What we are concerned about is that individuals who test positive may go off the deep end . . . or those who are very (sexually) active but test negative may say, 'Well, I can do anything I want--I don't have it,' " Finn said.