Tuberculosis, hepatitis, measles, mumps and rubella: It’s the law that in order to go to school, Illinois students must receive these immunizations and take these tests.
But should an HIV test be added to the list?
A proposed bill requiring Illinois students to take HIV tests as part of routine physical examinations has raised eyebrows, as well as debate.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said HIV screening should be a part of physical exams for people between 13 and 64 years.
However, John Knight of the Illinois office of the American Civil Liberties Union disagrees.
Knight said that a mandated test may not be effective in stopping the spread of HIV, and could violate students’ privacy. But the Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina’s Parish said testing kids will result in giving HIV-positive students the chance to live longer, healthier lives.
Rep. Mary Flowers (31st), author of House Bill 0193, said the legislation will be an effective way to address an AIDS crisis among Illinois youth.
Illinois Department of Public Health data show that as of 2004, more than 3,000 cases of HIV infection were reported in persons between 20-29 years of age. Many of them may have contracted the disease when they were much younger.
“And that’s just those they know had it,” Flowers said. “How many [kids] did they not know about, and what are they going to do about it?”
Minority youth have it even worse, she added. Nationwide, 50 percent of children 13-19 years old diagnosed with AIDS are African-Americans.
“They are people in my community. They are dying,” said Flowers.
Knight said testing in itself is not useful unless combined with education.
“Resources ought to be going to schools to provide medically accurate and comprehensive sex ed so students will know the facts regarding how HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases are passed,” he said.
Knight also expressed doubt over the effectiveness of a mandated test.
Research, he noted, shows that people forced to take the test are less likely to do safer things to protect themselves or others, and he questioned the need to test students entering kindergarten, an age group that has a low risk of contracting the disease.
Flowers said the bill doesn’t designate additional dollars for counseling because methods of dealing with people who test positive already exist.
“Counseling is incumbent upon the Department of Public Health,” she said.
The bill also calls for parents to receive information on HIV and the test itself before consenting to having their children tested.
Flowers insists that kindergarten is actually a good age to test.
“You can get HIV from being born [to an HIV-positive mother], from a blood transfusion, being stuck by a needle,” she said. “There are all sorts of ways you can catch HIV other than sex.”
Knight also had reservations over issues of parental involvement and privacy.
“Though parents can choose to opt-out of having their children tested, it’ unclear how parents are being told about the test, and nowhere in the bill does it ask the kid what he or she thinks about the test.”
While the bill stipulates that schools only be told a child was tested, the results are not to be shared with schools. Knight said it’s hard to guarantee that test results will be kept from schools.
“Some mistakes can be made, and a great deal of stigma and fear still exists around HIV,” he said.
“Parents have a right to know,” Flowers counters. “Many currently don’t have the option to test. They assume when a doctor draws blood [in a routine physical] that they are testing for AIDS. The bill will empower parents and children to get complete physicals.”
St. Sabina’s Pfleger supports Flowers’ legislation.
“We’re seeing a crisis in the growth of younger and younger people testing HIV positive,” he said. “We have a responsibility to them. If we can demand immunizations for health purposes, why can’t we do the same for HIV tests?”
Main Components of HB 0193
The bill makes HIV tests part of routine pre-enrollment physical examinations. Students would take an HIV test before entering nursery school, kindergarten, fifth and ninth grades, at the same time they are required to be tested for other diseases and receive standard immunizations.
Parents would receive information about HIV and AIDS (in the languages of the school population), including what the test results mean before consenting to have their children tested. Parents and children must be given the opportunity to ask questions and to decline the test.
Paperwork confirming that a student has taken an HIV test will be incorporated into the general health forms submitted to schools, though the results of the tests will be kept from schools.
Parents can sign an opt-out form, exempting their child from the test. Declining the test will be recorded on the health forms submitted to schools.
The Department of Public Health is to establish rules for maintaining the confidentiality of test results.
Students can be tested by their family doctor, or at another location of their choosing.
What is HIV? What is AIDS?
HIV is human immunodeficiency virus. This virus kills the cells assisting the immune system, and can progress into AIDS. It can be spread through unprotected sexual contact with someone who is infected, through sharing a needle with an infected person, through contaminated blood transfusions, and contact with the blood or sexual fluids of someone with the virus. It is not spread through casual contact.
AIDS is acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, a disease resulting from an advanced HIV infection. Often, people with AIDS will get infections that healthy people can usually fight off. These infections can be life-threatening.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.