\o7 There is no palpable fear in the tiny room at the Santa Ana Planned Parenthood clinic, no anxiety in the eyes of the friendly 22-year-old woman with a needle in her arm. It will come later.
A health worker removes the syringe from the vein, assigns a number to the blood sample and hands a slip of paper with an identical number to her patient, Venus Danae Duron, a student from Santa Ana. She asks Duron to confirm that the numbers match. In two weeks, Duron will return to the clinic and present her number to a counselor.
It will be the counselor's job to tell her whether her body harbors the human \f7 immunodeficiency virus.
\o7 Duron nods, smiles, laughs a bit nervously.
"I've had one partner for a long time," Duron says, "but you never know. . . ."\f7
Physically and bureaucratically, it's a simple thing to take an HIV-antibody test. It takes only a few minutes, and at many clinics it's free.
But it is a test fraught with deep portent, with complex meaning and psychological and social effects. It can define lives, renew them or alter them irrevocably.
In spite of the uncertainty and tension that often surround the testing process, more and more people, in a broader spectrum of "risk" groups than ever before, are facing up to the fact that the virus that causes AIDS is not specific to any population; that they may, at one point in their past, have put themselves in harm's way.
Today, during a typical month at the Orange County Health Care Agency's alternative HIV test site in Santa Ana, which handles most of the county's cases, about 1,000 people will be tested for HIV and between 10 and 20 of those will be shown to have the virus.
The monthly testing total is also roughly 50% higher than the corresponding figure only a little more than a year ago, before Los Angeles Lakers star Earvin (Magic) Johnson's announcement that he had contracted HIV. Such a dramatic shift in testing statistics has been common among local publicly funded HIV-testing facilities.
"I think people are recognizing that this is a silent virus and the only way they can find out if they're all right is by testing," said Bob Riveroll, the HIV coordinator at the Laguna Beach Community Clinic. "There is no such thing as high risk or low risk or medium risk anymore. It's something that can affect any American."
No one takes the test lightly. A positive result, although possibly not the absolute death sentence that it was considered to be a short number of years ago, still remains a source of deep fear. Still, for a variety of reasons, many are overcoming their apprehension.
"I think there's been a marked change in the type of person coming in to get tested, in what we call, frankly, the really low-risk people," said Peter Burrell, program supervisor for HIV testing and counseling at the county health care agency.
"It's not uncommon for somebody to say they're starting a new relationship now. They might say they had unprotected sex three years ago and they're worried now, or that the condom broke. I've never heard of so many condoms breaking in my lifetime."
Even married people, or couples who have been together for years, are testing.
"Even though they look and feel well today, and they've been together for a couple of years, they may begin to realize that both of them could by that time have the virus" as a result of sexual contacts they had had before they met each other, said Susan Sullivan, the HIV/AIDS education coordinator for the Orange County chapter of the American Red Cross.
The blood test required to obtain a marriage license in California does not include analysis for HIV, said Burrell.
More than any other population, women are lining up for the test.
"We've seen an incredible increase in single, heterosexual women come in here," said Laura Harper, a pre- and post-test counselor at the Orange County Health Care Agency. "It's not that they've had a great number of sexual partners, but that they're antsy about it."
Much of the increase in female testers, say officials, can be explained by the increase in the number and frequency of media stories and awareness campaigns tailored for a female audience. Also, said Harper, more women are realizing that they are more susceptible to an HIV infection in a heterosexual encounter than are men.
"What has been odd, though, is that we have not seen that much increase in heterosexual men coming in," Harper said. "They're still seeing themselves as not at risk. It isn't as easily transmitted to them, but they assume that 'not as easy' means 'not possible.' "
Many people who come for the test fall into a category health officials often refer to as the "walking worried" or the "worried well."
"There are some who are completely anxiety-ridden to the point of being irrational," said David Hoover, an early intervention social worker at the county health facility in Santa Ana. "Based on what they say they've been doing, it's completely irrational for them to worry."