VANCOUVER (CUP) — A new HIV prevention initiative pioneered by a UBC researcher seeks to expand HIV testing beyond only at-risk communities, focusing instead on those who are at a low risk of infection or believe that they are HIV-negative.
“We’re trying to take the stigma out of the equation,” explains Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence and head of the AIDS division in the UBC Faculty of Medicine.
“We no longer want to target HIV testing to people who are at risk, because we’ve done that already. We want to confirm that 99 plus per cent of society is negative, but help those who don’t know their status or are unsuspecting and help them get access to proper treatment.”
Montaner intends to test the general public on a strictly voluntary basis. The program uses a rapid-result test that takes only 60 seconds to determine a patient’s status.
If the result is positive, this is confirmed by a second test run in a full lab.
Anyone who has been sexually active in the last five decades could be at risk for the disease, Montaner said.
Various rapid-testing clinics have sporadically offered the 60-second test on UBC campus, but UBC Student Health Services currently only offers the full lab HIV test with a longer wait.
Reactions across UBC varied; many students had no qualms about taking or retaking an HIV test.
Testing costs would be subsidized by Vancouver Coastal Health. Montaner argues that the cost of testing should pay for itself in the future by making sure HIV-positive people begin treatment early.
An earlier program involved giving the rapid HIV test to 20,000 patients at St. Paul’s Hospital, Vancouver General Hospital and other Vancouver clinics.
Patients visiting for a non-HIV/AIDS related complaint were offered a rapid HIV test, and 97 per cent accepted.
While acceptance was high, “the rate of offer was less than 50 per cent,” reported Dr. Montaner. “Doctors or nurses didn’t have the time or the confidence to (offer the test).”
According to Montaner, 21 per cent of HIV-positive individuals are unaware of their status, and infected people who don’t know their status account for 54 per cent of new infections.
“If we could test everybody in British Columbia today, we could potentially find 3,500 HIV-positive individuals and virtually end HIV transmission in the province,” said Montaner.
“We’re trying to use B.C. as a testing ground for how far we can push the envelope and eradicate this epidemic,” said Montaner. “People infected with HIV need treatment. Full stop.”
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