“Have you been tested for HIV?” This is an awkward question for most people – whether you’re answering it or asking it.

Jacob Wasonga, the early intervention specialist at Alamo Area Resource Center (AARC), asks it all the time.

Omondi (Jacob) Wasonga
Omondi (Jacob) Wasonga

“Most people think they’re going to die from the infection, but that’s not necessarily the case,” Wasonga said, “People don’t want to get tested because they are afraid … that’s the challenge of (having) such a negative stigma attached to the disease.”

Starting today, the San Antonio World AIDS Day Collaborative will host three days of testing, informative talks, remembrance, counseling, awareness activities and artistic expression during this year’s AIDS Awareness Week, an extension of World AIDS Day on Dec. 1. (See a full schedule of events below story.)

Wasonga, AARC and others will be testing people throughout San Antonio at various testing locations. Most venues will offer a free, 20-minute saliva test, operate under extended business hours and provide on-site counseling services. The San Antonio Aids Foundation even has a van equipped for mobile testing.

San Antonio AIDS Foundation’s mobile HIV testing unit. Image from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Facebook page.

“Weak, poor, rich, whoever you are, you can come get tested,” Wasonga said, “We (AARC) even pay people $5 to come get tested.”

The entire process is confidential, patient information is only shared with the Health Department in the event of a positive test – which is still protected by law. In the event of a positive result from a saliva test, another “finger-prick” blood test is required to confirm the results.

According to the Texas Department of Health Services’s 2011 HIV Surveillance Report [PDF], about 4,719 people were living with HIV in Bexar county in 2011, approximately 119,009 in Texas state. Wasonga said that AARC has added about 300 more clients this year.

From the Texas Department of Health Services’s 2011 HIV Surveillance Report.

Most of the organizations, volunteers and social workers involved in the event have a commitment to HIV/AIDS prevention and education in San Antonio that continues during regular business hours year-round, long after and before this weekend.

Wasonga moved to the United States from Kenya seven years ago. His passion for HIV/AIDS education is personal and academic.

“I remember getting up and going to funerals every weekend,” Wasonga said of his childhood. “I have family members that are HIV positive.”

As of 2010, the HIV prevalence rate (the percent of people living with the disease) in Kenya was 6.3 %, compared to 0.6 % the United State.

Wasonga is currently doing doctoral work in marriage and family therapy at St. Mary’s University. His dissertation focuses on counseling and therapy models for individuals affected by HIV and AIDS and finding more effective clinical practices. He came to the U.S. to acquire skills and academic credentials that he can carry home to fight AIDS in his homeland.

“One reason why this disease is so predominant in Africa is because a lot of African people are uneducated,” Wasonga said.

Another is resentment toward the Western rooted in the colonial era, he explained. Once African communities gained independence, many “didn’t want anything to do with the Western World, and that included the missionary’s message of education (about HIV and safe-sex practices) … But this mindset is starting to fade away – the old generation (highly revered elders) is on the way out. Once the upcoming generation, yearning for change, is in control, this (attitude) will fade off.”

Many traditional cultures don’t trust the Westerners who come to educate them about HIV/AIDS. It’s Wasonga’s belief that, “When someone like me gains an education and goes back – it has more of an effect.”

Aid workers around the world strive to have the kind of outreach and access to free HIV testing facilities that San Antonio and the rest of the U.S. take for granted. People still slip through the cracks here. One out of five people infected with HIV in the U.S. does not know they are infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That translates to 20 % of the infected population, about 220,000 people, who do not know they are infected.

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which commonly develops into acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), carries with it a heavy stigma that prevents many San Antonians – and people around the world – from getting tested. According to the World Health Organization, as of 2000, 34.2 million people are living with HIV and  21.8 million people have died of AIDS.

“The main purpose of the event on Friday is to show that testing and awareness are not just for (people that are commonly) at risk (like intravenous drug users), but for everyone in San Antonio,” Wasonga said, “We’re anticipating to test over 100 people so that they can be aware of their HIV status.”

This year, the San Antonio AIDS Day Collaborative is made up of San Antonio Aids Foundation, Center for Health Care Service, San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, BEAT AIDS, San Antonio Museum of Art, Gemini Ink and Alamo Area Resource Center.

Thursday, Nov. 29

FREE HIV and Syphilis Testing, presented by San Antonio Metropolitan Health District

The San Antonio Metropolitan Health District (SAMHD) will offer free HIV and syphilis testing at Monterrey Park, next to Sonny Melendrez Community Center, at 5909 West Commerce Street. HIV and STD educational information and counseling will also be available. SAMHD will be joined by Center for Health Care Services (CHCS), San Antonio AIDS Foundation (SAAF) and BEAT AIDS in offering free rapid HIV testing and counseling.

Time: 10AM-4PM  |  Location: Monterrey Park, 5909 West Commerce Street

Friday, Nov. 30

The AIDS REVUE: performance art • poetry • music • dance, presented by the San Antonio Museum of Art, Gemini Ink, and the San Antonio AIDS Foundation

Enjoy readings by Anthony the Poet, Jenny Brown, John Phillip Santos, and Carmen Tafolla.  Performances by David Zamora Casas, Anna de Luna, Jayne King and Bill Colangelo. SAMA’s Café des Artistes will be open for dining. Cash bar available.

Time: 7:30-9:00pm  |  Location: San Antonio Museum of Art, 200 West Jones Ave.  |  Details: http://www.samuseum.org

World AIDS Day Commemoration, presented by Alamo Area Resource Center (AARC)

Refreshments, entertainment and door prizes will be provided.  Free HIV screenings offered to attendees of this event. Partners from local HIV/AIDS service agencies and supportive social service agencies will be present.

AARC is a San Antonio based service agency that has an objective to offer supportive services to the individuals and families affected by the HIV/AIDS Pandemic, offer preventative measures and raise awareness on the disease.

The World AIDS Day Commemoration initiative is aimed at bringing much-needed attention to the day-to-day effects this devastating disease has had on so many people and their families in Bexar County.  This is in line with the San Antonio Vision 2020 initiative where our goals are to contribute to improved overall assessment of health and behavioral risks, as well as increasing access to health care.

Time: 10:00am-3:00pm  |  Location: San Antonio Central Library, 600 Soledad Street

Saturday, Dec. 1 (World AIDS Day)

World AIDS Day Gathering of Rememberance & Hope, presented by San Antonio World AIDS Day Collaborative

This program includes music, dance, acknowledgments and more in an informative and entertaining evening that celebrates life, remembers those we’ve lost to HIV, and connects everyone who has been impacted in some way by HIV/AIDS.

6:00pm-7:00pm: Social and Information Booths

7:00pm-8:00pm: Gathering of Remembrance and Hope

8:30pm-9:00pm: Recessional of light.

Location: Instituto Cultural de México, 600 Hemisfair Plaza Way  |  Limited Free Parking: 673 East Cesar Chavez St.

Details: San Antonio World AIDS Day Collaborative Facebook Page

FREE HIV Testing/Extended Hours, presented by San Antonio AIDS Foundation (SAAF)

SAAF will be offering extended testing hours (9am-5pm) on World AIDS Day for their normal FREE HIV testing services.  Tests are anonymous or confidential HIV testing and counseling.  You do not have to give your name and minors do not need parental consent to test.  Results in as little as 20-minutes.  Regular testing hours are Mon.-Thurs. 8:30AM-4:00PM, Fri. 9:00AM-1:00PM, Sat. 10AM-3PM  http://www.txsaaf.org

Time: 9:00am-5:00pm  |  Location: San Antonio AIDS Foundation, 818 East Grayson St., off Broadway St. near Ft. Sam Houston, 7 blocks east of The Pearl.

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...