The Source LGBTQ+ Center looks to soothe climbing rates of sexually transmitted diseases amongst the county, youth populace
VISALIA – The Source is encouraging locals to only spread love on this year’s Valentine’s Day by getting tested to ensure healthy sexual activity.
Although the center offers these tests twice a month, with Valentine’s Day approaching, HIV program manager Steven Tucker said The Source decided to put a holiday spin on the Feb. 17 testing date. He said sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are a growing concern in Tulare County. Around the last three years, cases of syphilis have gone up by somewhere between 300% to 400%.
“We are trying our best to get people tested because we believe that prevention is the first step in eradicating STD infections in our county,” Tucker said. “We tell everyone that we could be their first step on their sexual health journey.”
The testing will be held at The Source LGBTQ+ Center on 109 NW 2nd Ave in Visalia. Appointments for the service are made online at calendly.com/thesourcelgbt but Tucker said walk-ins will not be turned away. To encourage more public participation, Tucker said a number of $10 gift cards will be handed out for Starbucks and Save Mart for those with appointments. Also, to stay on par with the Valentine’s Day theme, he said he will bring chocolates to the center as well.
The testing service starts at 12 p.m. and runs until about 4 p.m. If someone would prefer to ask questions or get more information about the tests before making an appointment, Tucker said people can contact him or someone at The Source at 559-429-4277. On the call, option two is for the HIV department and option one leads to his office line. Not only that, but Tucker said the center accommodates monolingual residents, like Spanish-speakers, and has translation services available.
“We’re trying to get out a bit more to the broader public,” Tucker said. “You do not have to be LGBTQ+ or queer to come here and access these services and get tested, it is for the community.”
According to Tucker, along with increased syphilis cases, 50% of all new HIV infections have been discovered amongst younger demographics of 15 to 24 year olds. He said that demographic makes up less than 20% of the population. With those statistics, he said education and outreach components have reached a desperate point. Although the center doesn’t discourage sexual activity in any regard, he said it’s better to stay protected and prepared.
The tests will be done through finger sticks, meaning a drop of blood is all that’s needed to conduct the test. People will be tested for HIV, hepatitis C and syphilis. Tucker said it takes 20 minutes for the HIV and hepatitis testing and 10 minutes for syphilis. Hepatitis C and syphilis do have treatments that can cure the diseases, with newer Hepatitis C treatments being much more mild compared to past cures, but unfortunately, HIV has no cure but is very easily treatable for most cases.
Aside from the standard recommendation of using condoms, Tucker also mentioned PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) as an efficient way to avoid contracting HIV. The treatment is a pill taken once a day and builds in someone’s system over the course of seven days. He said PrEP is up to 99% effective in preventing HIV, so as long as someone is taking it, they have decreased chances of contracting it. Approved by the FDA in 2012, the pill must be prescribed by a doctor, and the person taking it must be HIV negative. However, Tucker said access to the treatment is difficult in Tulare County.
Tucker also said PrEP is well-known amongst LGBTQ+ communities, particularly gay communities, but not so much amongst others. He said it likely isn’t as well known of a treatment due to a certain lack of education on the medication.
On prior testing events, Tucker said a lot of community feedback has pointed towards The Source being a safe and accepting space. He also said people have reported that they feel like the center has competent care.
“That’s the biggest thing, is that it’s not such a clinical atmosphere,” Tucker said. “They feel safe and comfortable, and then they can ask the questions that they normally wouldn’t feel comfortable asking their provider.”
Following this testing event, Tucker said he hopes to continue tying in holiday themes on future testing days as opportunities arise. Although something for March may be difficult to conduct, he said STI (sexually transmitted infection) awareness week is on April 9 to April 15, so The Source will partner with the county to get something together for it, as they will for this event. In addition to the county, they also partner with a local, federally qualified health center to conduct their tests.