The CEO of Britain’s only manufacturer of HIV self-testing kits is calling for a radical shake up of HIV education and testing by Public Health England (PHE).
Currently, 25,000 individuals in the UK are infected with the virus but unaware of their status (c. 25%). Meanwhile, PHE is falling short of the United Nations’ target of diagnosing 90% of HIV cases by 2020.
Yet, while rates of undiagnosed patients among men who have sex with men are declining – 10% in the last year alone – PHE’s decision to only target certain groups, such as gay men or black African males, means not enough is being done to ensure the disease is prevented in other parts of the population. This means there has been an increase in other groups, with a rise of 13% more undiagnosed non-Black African women in the last year and a 33% annual growth among 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 averaged 13.5% over past 3 years – about 300 new diagnoses each year in the UK. Additionally, more than 55% of older women are diagnosed late 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.
As a result, BioSure has partnered with HIV and AIDS charity the Terrence Higgins Trust to say that if rates of self-testing were tripled, the disease transmission could be reduced by 50-60%.
The warning comes at a time when clinical budgets are shrinking, despite existing sexual health services already being at full capacity. More than 4,000 people acquire HIV every year adding to the NHS’ current cost of £400 million per year simply to treat current patients (£250,000 to £400,000 per patient for lifetime care costs). Worryingly, four out of 10 people newly diagnosed as HIV-positive in the past 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, which is more than 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, 50.4% who took part 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 said: “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.”