- LACK OF FOCUS ON SELF-TESTING BY PUBLIC HEALTH ENGLAND IS THREATENING TO UNDERMINE THE FIGHT AGAINST HIV
- NEW TRANSMISSIONS COULD BE REDUCED BY UP TO 60% IF UK ADOPTS TODAY’S WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION SELF-TESTING GUIDELINES
The CEO of Britain’s only manufacturer of HIV self-testing kits has called for a radical shake up of HIV education and testing by Public Health England (PHE). With 25,000 individuals in the UK currently infected with the virus but unaware of their status (c. 25%), Public Health England is falling significantly short of the United Nation’s target of diagnosing 90% of HIV cases by 2020. To date HIV has killed over 39 million people globally.
Whilst rates of undiagnosed patients amongst men who have sex with men are declining (10% in the last year alone), PHE’s failure to target other populations now means rates are rising – with an increase of 13% more undiagnosed non-Black African women in the last year – and a shocking 33% annual increase amongst non-black African heterosexual men. In addition, prevalence of HIV is increasing in young women and post-menopausal women (50+). The latter, for example, has seen a rate of increase of 16% in the last year and has been 13.5% averaged over last 3 years – approximately 300 new diagnoses each year in the UK.
Not only are post-menopausal women not using barrier contraception because they’re not worried about getting pregnant, but they do not access maternity services where women are routinely screened for HIV and there are extraordinarily low levels of awareness – HIV just does not affect women. Additionally, the majority of older women are diagnosed late (more than 55%) meaning they have had the virus for quite some time resulting in poorer health outcomes, shorter life expectancy and they are likely to have unwittingly transmitted the virus
BioSure has partnered with leading HIV and AIDS charity, the Terrence Higgins Trust, to evidence that without increased self-testing, targets increased and earlier HIV diagnosis will not be reached. If rates of self-testing are tripled we could see disease transmission reduced by 50 to 60%.
The warning comes at a time when clinical budgets are shrinking, despite existing sexual health services already being at full capacity. Over 4,000 people acquire HIV every year adding to the NHS’ current cost of £400 million per year simply to treat current patients (£250k to £400k per patient for lifetime care costs). Worryingly, four out of 10 people newly diagnosed as HIV-positive in the last year were already in the late stages where the virus has already started to damage their immune systems, making their care much more expensive and their prognoses poorer.
To discover whether detection outside of a medical environment could improve rates of diagnosis, 3,000 individuals were supplied with BioSURE HIV Self Tests – where by using a fraction of a drop of blood, a user can get their own easy to read result in minutes (like a pregnancy test) (over 99.7% accurate). As a result of using the kit, 30 participants were newly diagnosed with HIV. The study showed that self-testing was uniquely powerful in reaching ‘untestables’ – people who should be screened but for various cultural, social and economic reasons haven’t accessed testing previously. Indeed, over half the people (50.4%) who partook in the pilot had never tested before despite being previously targeted. However, over 97% of the people who used the tests said they would use them again after having tried them.
Brigette Bard, CEO of BioSure says: “The HIV virus isn’t a killer anymore but it is the lack of awareness and testing that is putting lives at risk. As a white heterosexual female I cannot get a funded home postal test (from PHE) as I’m not deemed to be of risk. However, as the figures show, HIV prevalence in the wider heterosexual population is rising.
Public Health England’s policy of only targeting specific groups is outdated, continues to drive stigma (the biggest barrier to testing) and should be urgently addressed. Their approach to self-testing is particularly inadequate – this method needs to be accessible to everyone so that we can combat the virus once and for all.
The good news is we’ve seen just how quickly a surge in interest can occur when the stigma and misinformation around HIV is removed – recent examples include Prince Harry being tested live on social media or Charlie Sheen speaking out about his experience. We need to make these tests as common as home pregnancy tests.”