About 9,000 people in Canada have HIV and don't know it. (iStock)

Hopes a self-test will stop growth of HIV in Canada

About 14 per cent of Canadians who have HIV, or about 9,000 people, do not know they have it and the rate of HIV infection in Canada is still going up. To try to stop the increase, federal regulators have approved the first HIV self-test for Canada. Trials show it is easy to use at home and highly effective. The test involves collecting one drop of blood using a finger stick method. Results appear in one minute and are 99 per cent accurate.

‘Exciting for Canada’

“It’s exciting for Canada…This will help us reach the undiagnosed,” said scientist Sean Rourke in a telephone interview. Rourke works at the Centre for Urban Health  Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. He obtained government funding to study the test and is working on ways to bring it to those who need it.

The home HIV test uses one drop of blood, takes one minute to provide results and is 99 per cent accurate. (bioLytical Laboratories)

Pandemic has cut HIV testing in clinics

There are people who do not go to health centres for testing because of the stigma attached to HIV or because of personal circumstances. 

In Canada, HIV disproportionately affects men who have sex with men, Indigenous people, Blacks and drug users. The newly-approved test will make it easier for people to find out if they are infected without going to a health clinic.

Rourke says the timing is good because a study his team conducted in August  found a 50 per cent reduction in the number of HIV tests being done because of the COVID-19 pandemic. People either chose to not go to clinics for fear of catching the coronavirus or the clinics were closed. He says the new HIV self-test by bioLytical Laboratories could be available to order and purchase online later this week. 

Scientist Sean Rourke has worked to have a home HIV test approved, to bring it to people, to help them use it and get follow-up care. (Yuri Markarov/Unity Health Toronto)

Support planned to help people implement HIV test

Beyond that, Rourke and his team at the CIHR Centre for REACH 3.0 are working on a plan to offer the test online for free in January 2021. He also plans to provide peer support to help people get guidance on how to obtain the test, use it and then get connected to health care should they test positive. And if they test negative, they can be guided to take medication to prevent becoming infected with HIV.

“This (approval of the self-test) is a huge breakthrough,” said Rourke, noting that if people know they have HIV, they can take one pill and no longer have enough viral load to be contagious. It can change people’s lives and, for example,  means they can have children. 

Rourke has been a driving force in trying to stop the spread of HIV in Canada. He is a neuropsychologist who treated people with AIDS who suffered declines in their memory and concentration. He wanted an end to the HIV epidemic and began to push governments to look at how to achieve that; how to get people tested and to link them to care.  This led him to set up his Reach Centre which, he noted, receives no funding from companies but rather is funded by government. 

All-in-one HIV-syphilis test coming

At the same time as Rourke is working on rolling out the newly-approved HIV self-test, he is also planning to distribute new devices which can test for HIV and syphilis at the same time.

There is an alarming outbreak of the sexually-transmitted disease syphilis in the western province of Alberta with 2,265 cases detected in 2019. Alberta health authorities says a continuing increase in the past several years “is deeply concerning.” The rate of syphilis, it says, has increased by more than 10 times since 2014 in Alberta to a level not seen since 1948. Rates are increasing across Canada and around the world.

One of the dual HIV-syphilis tests is made by bioLytical Laboratories and the other by MedMira in the eastern province of Nova Scotia.

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