HIV-AIDS awareness reached its peak in the 1990s with Magic Johnson and the Hollywood film Philadelphia.
But the Public Health Agency of Canada estimates that 21 per cent of the infected population are still unaware of their HIV-positive status.
Launching on Valentine’s Day, an APPROACH study will offer free point-of-care, or “rapid”, HIV testing in select pharmacies in Newfoundland and Labrador and Alberta for a six-month period.
The aim is to discover whether a community, pharmacy-based rapid HIV screening program is acceptable, feasible and effective in reaching those at high risk and those who have never been tested.
“There are many reasons people don’t get tested,” said Dr. Debbie Kelly, School of Pharmacy, Memorial University, who along with Dr. Jason Kielly, School of Pharmacy, is a co-principal investigator.
“Sometimes people do not realize their own risk for HIV, or if they do, they may not be able to readily access testing.”
HIV testing in Newfoundland and Labrador is available through family doctors, sexual health clinics or in hospitals.
However, if people are without a family doctor or live outside the St. John’s area in a region without a sexual health clinic, it is more challenging to obtain an HIV test.
Those at highest risk of infection include men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs and sex workers.
Innovative approaches that make testing more accessible and overcome barriers may help to identify infections earlier, connect people with the care they need and reduce the spread of infection.
Early HIV diagnosis and treatment increases life expectancy, improves quality of life and reduces HIV transmission.
A finger prick sample
The rapid HIV test is ideal for use in the pharmacy setting. Results are available in about a minute.
Pharmacists already offer a variety of individualized, client-focused services in a private environment — no one would know whether someone is receiving an HIV test or a flu shot when they walk into or out of a private counselling room.
“Pharmacists will be using the Insti® HIV Rapid Antibody Test, an HIV screening test manufactured by bioLytical Laboratories,” said Dr. Kielly.
“The test requires a finger prick blood sample, similar to how someone with diabetes would check their blood sugar.”
Those being tested will also receive education from the pharmacist about how HIV is transmitted, so they can assess their own risk and know how to stay safe in future.
“People generally feel strong ties with their pharmacist and can often access pharmacists easier than their own family doctor, in particular in rural areas.”
In the event someone tests positive for HIV in the pharmacy, they will be connected with support services and confirmatory HIV testing to receive care.
“People generally feel strong ties with their pharmacist and can often access pharmacists easier than their own family doctor, in particular in rural areas,” said Dr. Kelly.
“Pharmacists also maintain close professional relationships with physicians and other health professionals in the community, supporting the establishment of strong, effective linkage to care plans for those who receive a reactive (positive) screening test and then require additional testing to confirm an HIV infection, for example. It’s a highly collaborative study.”
Getting the word to the streets
A number of approaches are being used to promote the service.
“Our posters feature a fingers theme to indicate that the test involves just one simple finger prick,” said Dr. Kelly.
“Posters will be distributed widely throughout the province in both rural and urban communities. We’re reaching out through ads on dating sites like Grindr, and through community organizations that are connected with high risk groups via social media and in real life. We will also have a study website which people can visit to get more information about the project.”
Testing will be available as of Tuesday, Feb. 14, at select times at Shoppers Drug Mart locations at 250 LeMarchant Rd. in St. John’s and 93 West St. in Corner Brook. For more information, please visit here.