It is estimated there are more than 3,500 people in B.C. who are living with HIV but don’t know it.
Starting this month, a made-in-B.C. pilot program has a Victoria pharmacy offering rapid HIV tests to its customers, free of charge.
The year-long pilot will evaluate the possibility of offering testing permanently in some pharmacies.
Medicine Shoppe pharmacy in Nanaimo began offering tests earlier this month while the other, located at 104-1964 Fort St. in Victoria, is set to launch at the end of the month.
“The best way to ensure early diagnosis of HIV is to make testing as easy as possible”, said Dr. Brendan Carr, president and CEO of Island Health.
“By removing the barriers to taking an HIV test – especially by offering testing in places where people already encounter the health care system – we can reduce the stigma associated with HIV.”
The pilot is being funded through the province’s pioneering Seek and Treat for the Optimal Prevention (STOP) of HIV/AIDS program – an initiative focused on increasing the reach of HIV prevention, testing and care to residents of B.C.
Increased reach of HIV testing is a key pillar of STOP HIV/AIDS. The provincial program encourages routine HIV testing to ensure early links to care, treatment and support. The initiative aims to improve the health of those living with HIV and prevent further infections.
“You can get tested for HIV while you get your prescriptions filled” said Dr. Dee Hoyano, medical health officer for Island Health.
“If we’re going to get to zero new HIV infections on Vancouver Island, people have to know if they are infected and follow up with lifesaving treatment. HIV is different now. Knowing you are living with HIV can save your life, because early treatment really works well.”
The pilot project will be evaluated over the course of the year to measure quality of care, customer uptake, testing volumes, diagnoses and cost effectiveness.
Last month, two pharmacies in the Lower Mainland, both part of the same pilot project, launched rapid HIV testing and have had already had 100 tests completed.
Rapid HIV tests deliver a preliminary result in less than five minutes.
Anyone receiving a non-negative result will be connected with a medical clinic where doctors will provide support to confirm a diagnosis and link individuals to care and treatment, as required.
A person who is living with HIV and taking their prescribed medication is up to 96 per cent less likely to transmit the virus to others.
“Often, people who are newly diagnosed with HIV can already be in the advanced stages of the disease” said Sophie Bannar-Martin, program co-ordinator of Island Health’s STOP HIV/AIDS project.
“HIV is a chronic infection, and early treatment is crucial in prolonging people’s lives along with and greatly improving quality of life and reducing transmission to others.”
Access to free HIV testing has been expanded across the Island, and is already available through community testing sites, hospitals, walk-in-clinics and through family physicians.