I would be upset if I had a 12- or 13-year-old who came home saying a stranger had pricked his or her finger to screen for HIV.
I would be all over the child: Who tested you? Why were you tested? And what were the results?
So I can understand that some parents were upset this week after learning that their children at Austin Meehan Middle School in Mayfair had been tested, along with older students from nearby Lincoln High.
A spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health said the screening was conducted by workers from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, who conducted a “Pop-Up Teen Wellness Station.” I heard it was done from a van at Rowland and Ryan Avenues.
City Councilman Bobby Henon, who co-sponsored the event with the health department, said in a statement that “the goal was to provide services to a segment of the population that is seeing an increase in HIV infection rates. Twenty-five percent of new HIV diagnoses in Philadelphia are among youth aged 13 to 24.”
Yeah, but tell that to the parents of some of the middle schoolers whose fingers were pricked. The kids were lured by the offer of a free slice of pizza from Jean’s Pizzeria & Grill.
As an African American, I am probably more leery about such outreaches. Call me paranoid, but I grew up hearing about the infamous Tuskegee Experiment, in which black sharecroppers infected with syphilis weren’t treated for the disease by the U.S. Public Health Service. Many of the participants had never seen a doctor and were enticed into the study by the promise of free health care.
“I feel as though they bribed those children," said Jamar Atkins, 39, of Chestnut Hill, a parcel delivery driver whose 13-year-old was among those who got a blood test.
But what youngster wouldn’t have been tempted? You get dismissed from school and find your friends munching on free pizza. You’d line up like they did.
Rachel Conrad, a homemaker, was livid when she learned that her 12-year-old daughter had followed along.
“I was like, ‘Why would you let someone prick your finger?’” she said. “‘You don’t know what they’re putting inside you.’”
Both she and Atkins rushed their children to be examined by doctors afterward, just to be safe.
They are right to be extra-cautious. I would have done the same thing. You send your children out into the world, and the last thing you expect is that someone will be getting involved with their blood.
Atkins pointed out that in the Tuskegee case, “those people had syphilis into their 70s and didn’t know it.”
Health department spokesperson James Garrow says these kind of outreaches are common and no reason for alarm. HIV is still a health menace, and screenings help keep those infected from unknowingly spreading the virus. I understand that.
“These events are a normal part of our work to fight the HIV epidemic,” Garrow told me in an email. "One of our providers, sponsored by us, set up this event with the intention of encouraging students from the nearby Lincoln High School to get tested for HIV. Given that one-quarter of all new infections in Philadelphia are among youth between the ages of 13 and 24, this isn’t an abnormal event.
“A number of students at Austin Meehan Middle School came to the testing event and were tested for their HIV status. Under Pennsylvania’s HIV testing law, commonly known as Act 148, there is no age limit for consenting to an HIV test, or duty to inform parents. Because our testing is anonymous, there is no way for us to have known that these students were from the middle school.”
That doesn’t fly with Atkins. “How is it anonymous when the students wrote their names down?” he asked.