MX newspaper in Melbourne recently did a front-page story on a new HIV testing kit that may be offered for sale in local service stations and nightclubs.
I thought it was important to help bring a little perspective to the idea of home HIV tests, and to address how rapid HIV testing could be brought to Australia to help eliminate the scary and sometimes painful waiting period involved with traditional HIV tests.
Currently, HIV testing is offered via a visit to your local doctor or sexual health clinic. One of the main reasons is to allow for the important counselling and education that is an essential part of the testing.
If you have never had an HIV test, it’s important to understand that, in addition to the blood test, it’s vital to be able to have an open conversation about why you may wish to have the HIV test done in the first place.
A doctor or nurse trained in sexual health can help guide your understanding of not only HIV tests but also general sexual health and safe sex, and discuss other tests that may be worth having at the same time.
HIV tests are done via a blood test. Depending on where you go, there can be a wait of up to one week before you return for your results. Naturally this is a very long time to wait if you are worried, which has been a driving force behind the drive for rapid HIV testing kits.
These tests are available in the USA, with some kits able to offer very accurate test results within 30 minutes.
One concern I have is with the idea of rapid HIV tests being sold via vending machines.
If these tests were to be sold in nightclubs, for example, what is to stop someone from grabbing a test and using it in front of a potential sexual partner to ‘prove they are HIV negative’?
Given that these HIV tests are checking for antibodies, if the person is in the very early phase of HIV infection there is a chance the test may come back negative despite having high levels of HIV but no actual HIV antibodies to test for yet.
Without appropriate support and counselling, what might happen to the person if the test comes back positive?
Please don’t misinterpret what I am saying. I fully support rapid HIV testing but I feel it’s vital that it’s done in a safe and supported setting. That may be a doctor’s room, a sexual health clinic or even a special clinic designed for these tests.
I worry for those people who have testing done at home without someone present to explore why they want testing and what the results may mean.
There is also the issue of other tests like chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis. Other infections that are much easier to catch are very treatable and when found and treated, can reduce the rate of HIV infection as well.
The key is support, empathy and the importance of having someone there to help explain the testing and be able to guide further testing if results come back positive.
This does not need to be done by a doctor or even a nurse.
With proper training, caring members of the community can support each other in helping improve health outcomes and increased sexual health testing.
I understand that seeking testing can be scary. Certainly the current wait for results does nothing to reduce that fear.
It is my hope that with increased lobbying from the health sector, rapid testing will be available sooner rather than later. By having a quick, simple and supported testing facility available, the need for HIV tests from a vending machine will be unnecessary.
By DR GEORGE FORGAN-SMITH
An excerpt from thehealthybear.com.au