OAKLAND — Fourteen years ago, when Jesse Brooks found out he was HIV positive, it felt like the end of the world.

"It was a death sentence," he recalls of that time.

Today, the muscular, healthy-looking

46-year-old tells others who test HIV positive that there is hope.

"Look at me," said Brooks, who shares his story as a counselor for Get Screened Oakland, a city program encouraging all people to get tested.

Although medical advances have made it possible to live a long, productive life with HIV, experts say most people are still reluctant to get tested — even though doing so early enough could save their lives, a panel of experts said Monday at a kickoff event for World AIDS Day on Saturday.

The event, held at Highland Hospital, also served as the backdrop to announce a $716,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that will allow three Bay Area hospitals — Highland and Alta Bates Summit Medical Center of Oakland and San Francisco General Hospital — to expand HIV testing, prevention and treatment programs.

"We are living in miracle times," said Dr. Kathleen Clanon, medical director of the Pa-cific AIDS Education and Training Center and a physician at the Alameda County Medical Center. "We no longer need to lose a single individual to AIDS."

If HIV is detected early and proper medication is subscribed, HIV need never evolve into full-blown AIDS, Clanon said.

Nonetheless, Dr. Steven O'Brien, medical director of the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center's East Bay AIDS Center, said nearly half the people in the United States who choose to get tested for HIV are within a year of being diagnosed with an AIDS-related illness — in other words, they suspect they are sick. Once someone is diagnosed with AIDS, it is usually too late to reverse the disease's devastating effects, he said.

Clanon and O'Brien were among those who gathered Monday to discuss three promising developments in local HIV/AIDS prevention and to advocate for more HIV testing.

Promising advances on the testing front include a new "spit test," a simple swab test of a patient's saliva, which gives results in 20 minutes. If evidence of the HIV virus is detected, the spit test is followed with a blood test to confirm HIV presence. Doctors believe the spit test — which is not as invasive or time-consuming as the blood test — may lead to many more people being tested.

Doctors also hailed a state law signed Oct. 12 that makes it easier to perform routine HIV testing on patients. Assembly Bill 682 requires physicians to tell patients that a test is planned and to provide access to counseling afterward. Patients can opt out of a test, but they no longer have to give written consent before an HIV test is conducted.

"Why is testing important? Because if people are HIV positive, we really do have treatments that are effective," said Dr. Michelle Roland, chief of the Office of AIDS for the California Department of Health. "It is a different day than 25 years ago."

In addition to getting treatment to those who need it, the knowledge of HIV status lets people take steps to prevent their partners and children from being infected.

Dr. Douglas White, an emergency room physician at Highland Hospital, has been conducting a CDC study on the feasibility of routine testing of emergency room patients. At Highland, he has directed the routine testing of all emergency room patients who give their consent in a program the CDC hopes to become a model for urban hospitals nationally.

White said the spit test and the fact that Highland already has an in-house HIV counseling staff made creating a routine screening of all patients a possibility. Any patients who test positive are linked to services on the spot.

White said the hospital has tested about 10,000 emergency room patients during the study's two year life. Of them, about 1 percent tested positive and about 90 percent of those were linked to services on the spot.

Even Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums has joined the ongoing public push and education through "Get Screened Oakland" — an ambitious program to encourage all Oakland residents to get tested for HIV.

Get Screened Oakland will offers free testing and sponsors a number of events through Sunday at several sites around the city in preparation for World AIDS Day on Saturday.

Contact Barbara Grady at 510-208-6427 or bgrady@bayareanewsgroup.com.