Many people are still not getting regularly tested for HIV.
In my line of work as a Family Physician, I frequently assist patients in performing Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) screening. I would like to share a story of a patient I recently treated.
40-year-old Melvin (not his real name) came by one day for a clinic consultation. His friendly and cheerful demeanour was accompanied with a mild level of anxiety. He shared with me his background: he was a gay man, in a monogamous relationship with a long term partner. Like many people, he had had several previous partners – past relationships, and the occasional casual fling. However, he had never undergone any screening tests to evaluate his sexual health. The last time he had been tested for HIV was over 20 years ago, when he enlisted for National Service.
“The honest truth is I am embarrassed and also fearful of seeing a doctor to do these tests. In fact, it took me a lot of courage to come to visit you today!”, said Melvin rather sheepishly.
“I have always had this avoidance mentality towards HIV. I felt that I would rather not get tested, and just live my life more peacefully. And really, what are the chances? I have always used condoms and compared to other people, I don’t think I have had many sex partners in my life,” he added.
He lets on further that it was after a lot of encouragement from his partner that he decided to bite the bullet and visit a clinic.
The news came as a complete shock to him – he had unfortunately tested positive for HIV. It took some time for him to come to terms with the result, and the fact that his life was never going to be exactly the same again. The silver lining was that Melvin was still in the early stages of the infection. He has since promptly started on treatment and is doing regular follow-up monitoring of his condition. The good news is that by doing so, he will likely be able to keep the virus in check and thus maintain a healthy immune system.
Melvin’s case highlights a perennial problem in mankind’s fight against HIV. Despite continuous efforts by health organisations to educate the public on HIV and increase awareness on the importance of regular screening, many people are still not getting regularly tested for HIV. It is estimated that 15% (1 in 7) of people in the United States are presently living with HIV and unaware that they have the infection. In an update on the HIV situation in Singapore earlier this year, the Ministry of Health (MOH) stated that only 14% of newly reported HIV cases in 2018 were detected by self-initiated, or voluntary, screening.
Common reasons that deter people from getting tested for HIV
1. I am scared of getting tested positive for HIV
Fear and anxiety are probably the biggest reasons why people avoid getting tested. The truth is, living in the unknown is worse and often scarier. It is far better to get the testing over and done with. If it is negative, it will bring much relief. If unfortunately the result is positive, all is not lost. Knowing your status early is the first step to getting support and receiving treatment in order to stay healthy.
2. If I test positive for HIV, people will find out
Medical clinics and testing centres endeavour to keep all patient records strictly confidential. Under the Infectious Diseases Act in Singapore, a positive test for HIV is notifiable to the Ministry of Health (MOH). This is mainly for public health purposes, such as disease surveillance, monitoring the HIV infection situation, conducting contact tracing and assessing disease prevention and management measures. Healthcare professionals and MOH do not inform the patient’s employer, insurance provider and certainly not family and loved ones.
3. I am afraid of being judged or being embarrassed
Healthcare professionals are trained to provide professional and non-judgmental consultation. If you do not wish to visit your regular doctor, take some time to do a search online as there are plenty of alternative options that you can consider. It is important to find a sexual health clinic or testing centre that you feel comfortable with.
4. I trust my partner
If two HIV-negative people are in a monogamous relationship, then certainly there is no risk of HIV, but we are all human and no one is perfect. If one member slips up outside of the relationship, then both parties could be at risk of HIV, especially if engaging in unprotected sex. It is important to have open and honest communication with your partner. If you or your partner has had sex with any casual partner, or if there is any doubt about your HIV status, then do get tested.
5. I am not at risk of HIV
Even if you think that there is no chance that you have been exposed to HIV, as long as you are sexually active, it is recommended to do HIV testing at least once a year, or more frequently if your behaviour puts you at higher risk.
6. Who should test for HIV?
It is recommended by the United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that everyone between the ages of 13 to 64 should undergo HIV testing at least once as part of routine health care. However, if your behaviour still puts you at risk even after getting tested, you should consider getting tested again at some point later on. People who engage in higher risk activity should get tested regularly.
Also read: HIV SYMPTOMS – WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
If you answer ‘yes’ to any of the questions below, you should get an HIV test if not done recently:
- Are you a man who has had sex with another man?
- Have you had sex – anal or vaginal – with an HIV-positive partner?
- Have you had more than one sex partner?
- Have you injected drugs and shared needles or works (for example, water or cotton) with others?
- Have you exchanged sex for drugs or money?
- Have you been diagnosed with, or sought treatment for, another sexually transmitted disease?
- Have you been diagnosed with or treated for hepatitis or tuberculosis?
- Have you had sex with someone who could answer “yes” to any of the above questions or someone whose sexual history you don’t know?
What are some of the HIV tests available?
There are three types of HIV tests available.
1. Nucleic Acid Test (NAT)
Also known as an HIV viral load test, this test looks for the actual virus in the blood. If the result is positive, the test will also show the amount of virus present in the blood. NAT is very expensive and thus not routinely used to screen individuals unless they recently had a high-risk or possible exposure and there are early symptoms of HIV infection. NAT is usually considered accurate during the early stages of infection. However, it is best to get an antibody or antigen/antibody test at the same time to help in the interpretation of a negative NAT result. Taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) or post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) may also reduce the accuracy of NAT.
A NAT is able to detect HIV in the blood as early as 1 to 4 weeks (7 to 28 days) after infection.
2. Antigen/antibody test
Also known as a fourth-generation or combination test, this test looks for both HIV antibodies and antigens. Antibodies are produced by the immune system when one is exposed to bacteria or viruses like HIV. Antigens are foreign substances that cause the immune system to activate. In early HIV infection, an antigen called p24 is produced even before antibodies develop.
The fourth generation test is able to detect HIV in the blood 2 to 6 weeks (13 to 42 days) after infection, and is most accurate after a 28-day window period.
3. Antibody test
This is also known as a third-generation test. As mentioned before, antibodies are produced by the immune system upon exposure to bacteria or viruses like HIV.
The antibody test is able to detect HIV in the blood in approximately 97% of people within 3 to 12 weeks (21 to 84 days) of infection. If a positive HIV result is obtained from any type of antibody test, a follow up test is required to confirm the result.
What does the test involve?
In the clinic setting, all the tests are typically performed using blood samples. Laboratory testing can be performed for all three types of HIV tests, whereby blood is drawn from a vein and collected in a tube. Rapid testing is available for only the fourth-generation test and the antibody test, whereby a few drops of blood are obtained via finger prick, and the results are ready in 20 minutes.
The rapid HIV antibody test can also be performed using oral fluids collected from the mouth and gums with a swab stick. Similarly, the results are ready in 20 minutes. This option is available in some clinics and community testing programs, such as Action for AIDS (AFA) Singapore.
Regardless of the test you choose, the process is simple and fuss-free, and no prior preparation is required – all you need to do is show up at the clinic. Pre and post-test counselling is always conducted professionally and non-judgmentally.
Despite all this, there are many who still feel extremely self-cautious about approaching a doctor to discuss HIV testing, for fear of stigma and discrimination. This is where anonymous HIV testing (AHT) comes in. AHT is offered as a means to encourage more individuals who suspect they might be at higher risk to step forward to do testing. There are only 10 clinics in Singapore that are licensed to offer AHT. AHT does not require any name, contact number or form of identification. Instead, a number is usually assigned to the patient for the purposes of providing the result later on. The patient is then required to fill up an anonymous questionnaire to provide some information on his/her sexual behaviour. When seeing the healthcare provider, he/she may be asked some further questions before undergoing the test. AHT is performed using rapid testing only. The entire process throughout is kept confidential and strictly anonymous, even if the test result is positive.
What happens after the test?
If your healthcare provider uses a fourth-generation antigen/antibody test, you should get tested again 45 days after your most recent exposure. For other tests, you should test again at least 90 days after your most recent exposure to tell for sure if you have HIV.
If your last HIV test was negative, you can only be sure you are still negative if you have not had a potential HIV exposure since then. If you are sexually active, continue to take actions to prevent HIV, like using condoms the right way every time you have sex and taking PrEP if you are at high risk.
Please get tested if you have not done so recently!
The worst part about the prospect of HIV and/or AIDS is living in the unknown. Do not avoid getting tested simply out of fear. Understanding your health and having a solid plan to stay on top of it – regardless if you are HIV-positive or negative – is the best way to live a long and healthy life.