With a portfolio of business ventures that now includes a stake in the Los Angeles Dodgers and the new cable network Aspire, Earvin Magic Johnson's latest endorsement -- of the first FDA-approved home HIV test, OraQuick -- is of a much more intimate and personal nature.
"When I announced 21 years ago, Elizabeth Glaser told me on her dying bed that I had to become the face of this disease," Johnson said at a presentation for Orasure Technologies' new test, referencing his own HIV-positive diagnosis in 1991 and his commitment to make good on his promise to the AIDS activist who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion she received while giving birth in 1981.
"She felt like the disease needed a face to raise awareness levels, [and] she wanted me to get out and educate people," Johnson told the crowd. "I promised her that I'd go out and do it."
But his efforts are twofold, he went on to say, with as much riding on his promise to Glaser as on his promise to the larger community of African Americans.
"When you think about the black and brown community, the stigma behind HIV and AIDS in our community ... [not wanting] anybody to see us walk into a clinic or to the doctor's office, this kit will help," Johnson said. "That's the people who I was thinking about most when I thought about this kit."
Despite making up just 13 percent of the population, African Americans bear the brunt of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the U.S., accounting for nearly half of the estimated 1.2 million people living with the disease, nearly half of new HIV cases, and half of annual AIDS-related deaths, according to Phil Wilson, president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute.
Organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called for routine HIV screening as a way to reduce the stigma some associate with showing up at an HIV clinic, a proposal that health officials hope the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force will back later this year. If agreed upon, the recommendations will make HIV testing as standard a practice as checking cholesterol levels, fundamentally changing how the virus is detected and treated, experts say.
In the interim, Johnson believes keeping awareness levels high is the key.
"After I announced ... people were running out to actually get tested ... We had a good run for about five or six years where we were talking about it openly. But fast-forward to today, people are not talking about it like they used to," Johnson said, pointing to a shift in how commonly those who do get tested actually go back for their results. (He put that number around 50 percent in a documentary commemorating the 20th anniversary of his diagnosis last year.)
OraQuick, which received approval by the Food and Drug Administration earlier this year, produces results in 20 minutes and retails at pharmacies, such as CVS and Walgreens, and online for approximately $40. The test has been used by health care providers for just over a decade and uses a mouth swab to detect antibodies to HIV-1 and HIV-2 in oral fluid. And while it has been put through a battery of tests itself, the FDA cautioned that the test is not 100 percent accurate in identifying people with the virus.
In a trial conducted by test maker Orasure, OraQuick detected HIV in those carrying the virus only 92 percent of the time, but was 99.9 percent accurate in ruling out HIV in patients who are not carrying the disease.
That means the test could miss 1 in 12 HIV-infected people who use it, according to the FDA, but would incorrectly identify only one patient as having HIV for every 5,000 HIV-negative people tested.
An inaccurate reading can result if a person takes the test too close to their moment of incidence rather than after three to six months, the approximate time HIV takes to appear in the human body, experts say.
Despite its flaws, Johnson still thinks the over-the-counter test will help turn the tide in curbing HIV and AIDS and, at the very least, get the conversation going again.
"I think it's a game changer," he said. And though he doesn't believe it would have made a difference in terms of his own result, coping would have been easier, he went on to say.
"I think the suspense would have been taken away. Would I have reacted the same way? Yes. But what saved my life? Early detection. I got on some meds right away. In the black and brown community, what happens is a lot of time we find out too late, so the meds can't help us."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that a proposal was made by members of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) earlier this year to make HIV screening routine part of physical exams. USPSTF has not yet issued a proposal or their updated recommendation on HIV screening, but do expect to release a draft recommendation by the end of the year.