HIV testing and diagnosis is set to become significantly easier with the approval of new rapid HIV screening tests in Australia.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration has approved the Alere Determine Combination HIV test for inclusion on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods, making it the first rapid testing tool to become legal for clinics to supply to patients. Rapid or point-of-care testing involves an oral or blood pinprick test, and reduces the waiting time for diagnosis from a week to half an hour.

Federal Health and Ageing Minister  Tanya Plibersek joined State Health Minister Jillian Skinner to voice their approval earlier today at the Albion Centre HIV treatment facility in Surry Hills.

“Since 1985 we’ve had 30,000 HIV infections in Australia and around 7,000 deaths, and many of those deaths were preventable by testing. This approval increases the likelihood that people will come in for tests and be tested frequently,” Plibersek said.

Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) executive director Rob Lake said the announcement was a big step forward.

“This is a circuit breaker for us – we’ve been pushing for rapid testing to be approved for years, and this is really the start of something new in HIV diagnosis,” Lake said.

While rapid testing has been available on a trial basis in Sydney HIV/AIDS support centres since July, it is likely to be some time before the screening test becomes available nationwide.

Test manufacturer Alere will negotiate with the federal government’s Medical Services Advisory Committee over a price for practitioners to reimburse the test through Medicare, a process that will take several months. Without Medicare support the cost of the test’s use would have to be absorbed by clinics and physicians, possibly by passing the cost on to patients.

Skinner, who announced the state government’s intention to reduce HIV infections among gay men by 60 percent by the year 2015 earlier this month, said that she was “thrilled” by the approval.

“While the funding issues are still to be sorted out, this is a very important step on the way to rapid testing. With faster testing and faster treatment I’m confident that we will reach our goal of reducing new HIV transmissions,” she said.

It is likely the rapid testing tool will be confined to HIV and STI clinics and only be administered by professionals experienced in HIV medical and counseling training.

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