Payson is such an isolated community that it's easy to buy into the idea that those who live here are safe from the dangers that hover over the rest of the planet.
Cheryl Mendoza knows otherwise, about one danger in particular.
"HIV is present and a real concern in Payson," said Mendoza, the public health nurse and HIV coordinator for the Gila County Health Department. "Everybody should be protecting themselves, and if they have been engaging in high risk-factor behavior, they should be tested for HIV, Hepatitis B and C, and all sexually-transmitted diseases."
The opportunity to be checked for HIV will come to town Friday, Jan. 11, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m, when Mendoza will conduct one of an ongoing series of free, anonymous human immunodeficiency virus tests in the county health department's Payson office at 107 W. Frontier Street.
This local testing has now been implemented to take place twice monthly, usually on the second and fourth Thursday of each month. Once the local office's HIV nurse becomes certified, Mendoza said, testing may be increased to three or five times per week "for anyone who wants to walk in."
According to Mendoza, the great benefit of the county's HIV-testing program is that it's the only one available locally that guarantees anonymity to almost everyone who requests it.
"In our program, you're identified by a number only," she said. "You don't need to give us your name unless your test has come back positive for a second time, and you elect to take advantage of Centers for Disease Control funding for services for treatment and financial assistance."
HIV is the only STD (sexually-transmitted disease) identified by the test, Mendoza said. "If you think you've been exposed to another type of STD, you'll have to go to your doctor or the nearest Planned Parenthood."
Those who undergo either the blood or oral HIV test Jan. 11 will receive their results Jan. 24, when Mendoza returns from her Globe office to conduct the next round of tests. Those awaiting results can call the Payson office on or after that date for another appointment.
When a test comes back positive for HIV, it simply means that the patient has tested positive for the virus. It does not become AIDS usually for 10 years or until immune system problems appear. Although the patient may feel well, he or she is still infected with a virus that is fatal and can be passed to others through several means. While there is medication to help slow the progression of the disease, there is no medication to eradicate this disease.
The HIV tests Mendoza will conduct in Payson represent only one-half of her job while she's in town. The other is prevention education, for which she's hoping to recruit community involvement.
"One of the things we're hoping to do is to go to (certain Payson businesses) to see if they will allow us to put in displays containing free condoms, to encourage people to use them," Mendoza said. "Condoms are a huge part of our prevention program and, used properly, they can be extremely effective."
"Blanket testing" not necessary
"There are some people who want everybody and their brother to be tested for HIV, whether they have any risk factor or not," says Epidemiologist Rick Stephens of the Valley-based HIV Epidemiology and Statistics Program.
"And then there are folks who are a little bit more pragmatic, who say only people with risk factors should be tested. I am not in the blanket-testing camp."
Those with the highest risk factors, Stephens said, are persons who have sex with men who have sex with other men, injection-drug users, and anyone who engages in sexual activity with numerous partners.
"Each of those would be good reasons to get tested for HIV and a whole bunch of other sexually-transmitted diseases," he said.
According to Stephens, Gila County is on the low end of the Arizona scale in terms of reported HIV and AIDS cases and deaths. But he also points out that being anywhere at all on these particular scales is reason for caution.
As of July 1, 2001, the state's largest county, Maricopa, saw an accumulated number of 3,538 current HIV infections and 191 deaths, with "tons more, perhaps three times as many, out there that have not been reported." The second-largest, Pima County, saw 996 and 60 deaths. Meantime, Gila County saw 7 cases and a single death, or "less than one percent of all of Arizona cases," Stephens said.
Of Arizonans who by July 2001 were reported with AIDS, Gila County saw 20 patients and 11 deaths, while Maricopa County saw 5,281 patients and 2,966 deaths.
"But again," Stephens said of the Maricopa count, "there are probably two or three times more cases that have not been reported to us. So it's difficult to draw any conclusive parallels. Let's just say that Arizona has a very real HIV and AIDS problem."
To make an anonymous appointment for HIV testing, call the Payson office of the Gila County Health Department at 474-1210.