By Kira Gressman
The fight against HIV transmission is far from over, and we are not close to giving up either. Recent developments in medical research are addressing HIV prevention and treatment from new angles with the hope of reducing rates of transmission. On July 3, 2012, the FDA unanimously approved an over-the-counter HIV test. The company Orasure Technology Inc. developed this home-test version of the Oraquick Saliva Test, which already is used successfully in numerous testing facilities. The goal is to provide the public with another testing option that may be more comfortable and appealing to some individuals. If successful, this could help thousands of people learn their HIV status and decrease the 50,000 new cases of HIV transmission anticipated to occur in the U.S. this year. Without question, there is great potential for this advance to positively transform HIV prevention in our communities. Yet for the Oraquick test to truly impact the fight against HIV transmission, further preventive measures must be taken and community members need to be educated about the test, as well as HIV transmission and prevention.
The Oraquick test could theoretically prove to be a strong tool in reducing transmission rates. Out of the predicted 1.2 million cases of HIV in the US, an estimated 20% are unaware of their positive status. Now, in the comfort and anonymity of home, this self-administered test could lead to an estimated 4,000 fewer annual transmissions from individuals who would have otherwise been unaware of their positive status. That is 4,000 people – friends, relatives, and members of our community – who might possibly avoid HIV transmission.
For those who previously were deterred from reaching out to a public health resource for testing out of fear, embarrassment, inaccessibility, or even inconvenience, there is now an alternative option. Orasure will even provide clients with counseling and support 24/7 over the phone to address any questions or concerns.
Using the test to identify peoples’ statuses is the first step to precluding further transmissions. However, the prevention process cannot simply end here. In the event that someone tests positive, it is vital that the individual contacts a support service — whether that is the 24/7 phone line or an organization like BCAP. Although the saliva test is highly accurate, 1 in 5,000 tests will produce a false positive, meaning a blood test is necessary to truly confirm a positive HIV status. If someone truly is HIV-positive, getting in touch with resources such as case management and medical care is the next step. Developing a support system and discussing treatment options is key to maintaining one’s health when living with HIV.
Education and awareness is equally important for those who receive a negative test result. It takes three months after an HIV-exposure for a test to be able to detect the HIV antibodies. If someone administers a test within this time frame after exposure, a negative test result may not accurately represent the person’s HIV status. Should these individuals engage in high-risk behavior under a false sense of security, they could unknowingly pass the virus to others. Also, if someone truly is negative and increases risky behavior, this could be dangerous by increasing one’s risk of acquiring HIV. However, by properly administering and interpreting the test results, getting retested if needed, and practicing safer sex, a Oraquick home-test user can confidently learn one’s status and help decrease HIV transmission.
It is always a personal decision to learn your HIV status. The Oraquick test takes this accountability to the next level by directly placing testing capabilities in the hands of the general public. The test will appear in thousands of local stores this October. The expected cost is approximately $17. Although this is affordable for some, many high-risk demographics may not be able to afford this test and will stick to using free/sliding scale testing resources. While organizations like BCAP remain essential to promoting awareness and prevention, working in tandem with this new technology could bring optimistic outcomes. Only time will reveal the impact of the Oraquick home-test, but with continued HIV prevention and education, we can contribute to its potential impact and continue to fight the battle against HIV transmission.