Until last month it was illegal to sell a self-testing kit to check for HIV infection in the UK but the law has now been changed. Companies can apply for a licence to make and sell HIV home testing kits and the first ones are expected to become available in the UK by the spring of 2015. Dr Ian Cropley, Consultant in Infectious Diseases and HIV at The Physicians’ Clinic, looks at the implications of this development.
Are HIV home test kits a good idea?
It’s estimated that approximately 83,000 people are HIV positive in the UK but one in four of them are unaware that they are infected. “Allowing home test kits for HIV is generally a good idea and has been welcomed by health professionals working in this area. The availability of home kits should encourage more people to get tested, which should reduce the proportion of people who don’t know they are HIV positive,” says Dr Cropley.
If you are infected by HIV – the human immunodeficiency virus – effective treatments are now available. The therapy is life-long but people who are HIV positive and treated promptly can now expect to live a normal lifespan. Deaths from AIDS, the syndrome that develops when the HIV infection gets out of control, are very rare in the UK.
“A higher detection rate would also have another benefit; if people know they are HIV positive they can practice safe sex to reduce onward transmission of the virus,” adds Dr Cropley.
How does the HIV home test kit work?
The only test kit that has been approved anywhere in the world has been passed for use in the USA by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The kit includes a swab that is used to wipe inside the mouth on the gums to pick up saliva. The swab is placed within a tube provided in the kit and allowed to develop for 30-40 minutes.
The chemical test detects antibodies in saliva that the body generates against HIV if someone is infected. If positive, two lines appear in the tube while a negative result produces only one line.
How reliable is an HIV home test kit?
The only data available currently is from the test used in the USA. This produces a false positive result in one in 5000 people tested. “It is essential that anyone with a positive result attends their GP, Sexual Health Clinic or HIV service for further testing to ensure this is a correct result. If the test is confirmed positive, you can then access specialist care,” explains Dr Cropley.
Of more concern is the data that shows that the test misses one in 12 people who are HIV positive, giving a false negative result, particularly in people who may have been recently infected as the test may take up to three months to become positive.
“This is potentially more serious as those people will assume they are HIV negative and OK, and may not feel the need for further testing. Having a blood test with their GP, Sexual Health Clinic or HIV service will continue to be the most reliable way to check if you are HIV positive,” advises Dr Cropley.