According to the ACNL, there are roughly 20,000 people in Canada unaware that they are living with HIV. A disproportionate number of them live in NL. Barriers to HIV diagnosis help to spread the infection, and threaten the long-term health of those with the infection.
There are several reasons why it goes undiagnosed. The first one is medical. The early stages of HIV infection are easily brushed off as a cold, or go entirely unnoticed. Upon infection, your body tries to fight off the virus, leaving you with flu-like symptoms, easily disregarded as anything serious. Stage two of the infection is entirely asymptomatic: you’re healthy with no symptoms.
Other barriers to HIV diagnosis include lack of easy access to testing sites (picture a 19 year old in rural NL without a car or family doctor), and good old-fashioned stigma in asking to be tested.
Early diagnosis and treatment of HIV is key to ensuring people with HIV will live a healthier life. Early diagnosis also reduces the spread of the virus, if only because HIV positive people know they’re HIV positive, and stop having unprotected sex, sharing needless, breastfeeding children, etc.
While there is no cure for HIV, medicine can stop HIV from reaching its end stage: AIDS. Once in your body, the HIV virus attacks the immune system, gradually weakening it until it can no longer defend itself against various illnesses, infections, and diseases.
Therefore, convenient, accessible, regular HIV screening in our communities would be vital for controlling HIV (and STIs in general). That’s exactly what a new project out of MUN is trying to put into place. It’s called The APPROACH Study, and aims to determine whether a pharmacy-based rapid HIV screening program could effectively reach those at high risk for HIV, and those who have never been tested.
Researchers in the School of Pharmacy at Memorial University launched the six-month pilot project on Valentine’s Day, at select pharmacies in NL and Alberta. Testing is free, so there’s no financial barrier, and results are provided within minutes, to avoid the nuisance and privacy concerns of a follow-up appointment.
Getting results right away also removes the double-dose of unease or stigma people feel in being tested for STIs — you get your testing and results in the one go (instead of two separate visits). Participating pharmacies in our province include Shoppers Drug Mart on LeMarchant Road (St. John’s), and Shoppers Drug Mart on 93 West Street (Corner Brook).
One need only be over 18, and bring along your MCP. You simply approach the pharmacy counter, and verbally request an HIV test, or slip the pharmacist a piece of paper reads “HIV test please.” You will be escorted to a private room, to give your consent to participate in the study and be tested.
That’s it, and it’s as simple and discreet as a finger prick test, like diabetics do to test their blood-glucose levels, so to an onlooker, they won’t even know what you’re being screened for.
Making HIV testing a simple, convenient, one-stop, and discreet pin-prick test, run through neighbourhood pharmacies, would go a long way to controlling HIV (and STIs in general) in our communities. As it stands, testing is done by family doctors, hospitals, or sexual health clinics — all three of which aren’t readily available to all Newfoundlanders & Labradorians. Pin prick tests at community pharmacies would combat the accessibility and stigma issues currently affecting the prominence of HIV on the people of NL.