Beginning in October, individuals will be able to check their HIV status privately in their own homes when the first rapid, at-home HIV tests go on sale in pharmacies across the U.S.
But will people also ask potential sexual partners to take the test?
“The test was not produced so people would test potential partners, but from the very beginning, there’s been speculation that people will use it this way,” says Alex Carballo-Diéguez, PhD, associate director of the HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies at NYSPI and the Columbia Department of Psychiatry, whose research on the subject was recently published online in the journal AIDS and Behavior.
About 50,000 people each year in the U.S. are infected by HIV, and those infections are often transmitted from people who are unaware of their status. At-home tests may be able to increase the number of people aware of their infection, get them into treatment, and reduce the transmission rate, which has not declined in a decade.
Though some critics contend using the test to screen partners is a “misuse” of the test, Carballo-Diéguez says his research suggests that by introducing the test into networks of people at high-risk of acquiring and transmitting the virus, partner testing may be an effective way to reduce further spread of the infection.
In the study, Carballo-Diéguez and his colleagues gave home test kits to 27 men for their own use and for use with potential partners. The participants – men who often have unprotected sex with men — were at high risk of acquiring HIV.
Over the course of the research, the study participants asked 124 partners to take the rapid, at-home HIV test before sex and 101 agreed. Ten of the tested men (10 percent) were positive. Six of the 10 were previously unaware of their HIV status.
“What we found, which was a little bit of a surprise to us, was that people were quite skilled at presenting the test option to partners,” Carballo-Diéguez says.
“There were no major problems. There were very few incidents where someone got annoyed or reacted with some aggression. There was never real violence. That was quite reassuring, particularly in the cases where the test was positive.”
Most importantly, he adds, when the participants discovered that a partner was HIV-positive, they did not have unprotected sex, preventing HIV exposure. And partners previously unaware of their status could now seek help and treatment.
“We think the test can have a very important effect on decreasing the chances of exposure to HIV in high-risk groups,” Carballo-Diéguez says. “There are groups in New York that have prevalence rates comparable to sub-Saharan Africa, and the likelihood of being exposed to HIV is very, very high. Any tool that we can give people to make informed decisions is going to be good.”
Quick Facts About HIV/AIDS in the US
- According to a fact sheet produced in February 2012 by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, the number of new HIV infections in the U.S. is approximately 50,000 annually.
- The number of people living with HIV/AIDS is estimated to be 1.2 million, 20 percent of whom don’t know that they are infected.
- The rate of infection was highest during the 1980s, with 130,000 being infected each year during that decade. Although the rate has declined since then, it has remained around the 50,000 mark annually for the past 10 years.
- The CDC reports that states in the South and the Northeast regions of the U.S. have the highest HIV infection rates.
- In addition, the CDC notes that in 2008, the overall total rate for people living with the HIV diagnosis was 417.5 per 100,000 people.
- In 2011, federal funding related to HIV was $27.1 billion, 24 percent of which went to support international efforts to combat the disease.