Last week, the CDC and Walgreens announced the launch of a pilot program to deliver free HIV tests in 24 pharmacies and retail clinics across the country. The goal of this program is to make HIV tests more conveniently available as a standard, everyday service and thereby make more people aware of their HIV status.
This announcement is in line with the CDC’s 2006 recommendation that all adults and teens get tested for HIV at least once in their lives. Officials also advise that people who are at higher risk of HIV infection (gay and bisexual men, people who use injection drugs, and people who have multiple sex partners) get tested at least every year.
However, testing rates still remain low. Today, one in five Americans who is infected with HIV does not know it, and one in three is diagnosed so late that she or he develops AIDS within a year of a positive HIV test. Without knowledge of their status, thousands of Americans cannot take advantage of available medications and treatment. Moreover, research has shown that people who know they are infected with HIV are less likely to put others at risk of infection.
The pilot program, which will cost $1.2 million, will last two years and take place in both urban and rural settings. CDC officials have already begun training clinic staff in administering the test and offering counseling and referral services as needed. An assessment of this program will inform similar programs across the country in the future. Currently, Walgreens is offering free HIV tests at select pharmacies in three locations: Washington D.C., Chicago, Ill. and Lithonia, Ga.
Patients will be able to walk into a drug store or retail clinic where they can use forms that resemble business cards to discreetly request a free test. The rapid HIV test, which presents results in twenty minutes, analyzes a blood or tissue sample for the presence of HIV antibodies, a substance that the body creates if it is infected with HIV. People who receive a positive HIV test will be referred to medical and counseling services.
Experts at the CDC believe testing in convenient locations and less “medical” settings will encourage more people to get tested who otherwise would not. It has been estimated that millions of Americans visit pharmacies every week, and that thirty percent live within a ten-minute drive of the closest pharmacy.
Additionally, the program’s creators also hope it will help to reduce stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS. When HIV first appeared in 1981, confusion about its origin and its connection to drug use and sexual promiscuity fostered stigma around the disease. By increasing knowledge about the importance of HIV testing for everyone, experts hope to reduce feelings of fear and shame that keep people from getting tested. The director of the CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention Jonathan Mermin, M.D., explained, “our goal is to make HIV testing as routine as a blood pressure check.”
June 27 was National HIV Testing Day. In honor of this occasion, the CDC is asking all individuals between ages 13 and 64 to get tested for HIV.