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Virginia Activist Provides Free HIV Tests to Teens, Angers Some Officials

Virginia Activist Provides Free HIV Tests to Teens, Angers Some Officials


To dismay of some Virginians, John Chittick is changing the face of HIV testing and awareness for local teens.

For John Chittick, providing teens with free, over-the-counter HIV testing kits is a no-brainer. "I see the greater good as getting the tests done," the leader of TeenAIDS-PeerCorps told The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk.

Last October, his Norfolk-based AIDS education group started a testing effort using home test kits approved last summer by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The oral swab tests, OK'd for people age 17 and older, provide results in 20 minutes. With tests readily available, Chittick and his volunteers go out on public streets and in city parks, talking to teens and young adults.

What's more, he invites the media along and equips the volunteers from TeenAIDS-PeerCorps with cameras.

Chittick has tested about 50 people — two testing positive for HIV, one with a false positive — and many of these have been caught on camera. But officials in some cities have objected to Chittick's effort, worrying about the consequences of media exposure and the public availability of test results.

Two weeks ago Virginia Beach city officials stopped Chittick and volunteers from trying to enter a public skateboarding area. In April, after a parent questioned him in a Norfolk city skate park, police officers showed up. In both incidents, police concluded that no laws were broken.

Last Wednesday, Virginia Beach officials met with Chittick in the city attorney's office. They were concerned about whether test recipients' parents would be  involved, whether the young people would receive appropriate counseling, and medical professionals' obligation to report test results to the proper authorities but otherwise keep those results confidential — something that the presence of cameras may compromise.

Heidi Kulberg, Virginia Beach's acting health director, said she was worried about the mental health implications of a positive test result. "What is the potential for them going home, being overwhelmed with this information and taking their own life?" she told The Virginian-Pilot.

But Chittick has pointed out that he isn't a medical professional so has no reporting or confidentiality requirements, unlike doctor's offices or similar HIV testing services in Virginia funded by the federal and state governments, and that any teen can walk into their local drugstore and buy a similar or the same home testing kit without the need to report to anyone.

Chittick, who has a doctorate in education, has been providing AIDS counseling for more than a decade and maintains that he is within his First Amendment rights. He said he explains to teens how HIV is transmitted and informs them about the home kits. He added that most of the people he talks to don't want to go to a medical facility to be tested and don't know about the home kits.

Meanwhile, Kulberg and other city officials are still wary of the legality of Chittick's operation. She plans to seek input from the state attorney general's Office on confidentiality, reporting by those who are not medical professionals, and parental consent. However, she applauded his efforts to educate teens and young adults about HIV, adding,"We want to get as many people tested as possible."

Chittick plans to continue testing 17 and older. He also wants to lobby federal officials to allow him to test 16-year-olds. He said social media and one-on-one street education are the best methods to reach out to young people, and he'd be happy to provide HIV/AIDS education to anyone, free of charge.

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Katie Wurtzel