New high for HIV cases?

First Published – 1 Dec 2007

Only 5% of infected heterosexuals detected via voluntary testing

ALICIA WONG

alicia@mediacorp.com.sg

WITH 356 newly-detected cases of HIV reported here between January and October, this year’s final total is on track to surpass last year’s figure of 357 — and set a new high.

But what is perhaps more worrying is the number of unreported cases among heterosexuals, who seem less likely to go for voluntary HIV testing.

Of 164 Singaporeans found to be infected with HIV in the first half of the year, heterosexual transmission accounted for 67 per cent, according to figures released by the Ministry of Health (MOH) on Friday. Only 5 per cent of them were detected via voluntary screening — the rest were detected in the course of some form of medical care or contact tracing.

Among homosexuals diagnosed with HIV, 31 per cent of cases were found through voluntary screening. Homosexual transmission accounted for 24 per cent of new HIV cases between January and June.

The scenario was similar last year. Three per cent of new HIV-infected heterosexuals were detected through voluntary testing, compared with 35 per cent of homosexuals.

Action for Aids (AFA) president Roy Chan said public education has “yielded results for the homosexual community”, but the heterosexual community is not as receptive as “they may not understand fully the risks involved”.

An MOH spokesperson said the findings “underscore the urgent need for the HIV testing message to take root in the heterosexual community”.

Those engaging in risky behaviours are urged to go for regular HIV testing as “early diagnosis and treatment can significantly delay the onset of Aids and reduce the risk of death”, said the spokesperson.

Indeed, as the statistics show, 55 per cent of cases of those detected with HIV were already in the late stage of infection.

To facilitate early and regular testing, MOH has allowed medical clinics to offer HIV testing using oral-fluid or blood-based rapid HIV test kits since August. These rapid HIV tests can produce results in about 20 minutes. Nearly 100 clinics offer such services now.

Dr Tan Sze Wee, Rockeby biomed CEO, which supplies the rapid HIV test kits, said response has been “quite positive”. The company sells an average of 500 sets a month to 55 clinics. He expects the volume to increase this month, with more Aids awareness activities now.

Perhaps, if the Food and Drug Administration in the United States approves of over-the-counter sale of HIV tests kits in 2009, MOH may consider selling the kits outside of clinics, he added. But Dr Tan noted that changes to the kit have to be made first, such as changing the instructions and introducing pre- and post-test counselling currently conducted by clinics.

To step up detection of HIV, Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan had earlier announced that all men admitted to hospital would be asked to take a voluntary Aids test.

Of all the new cases reported in the first six months, only 12 per cent were diagnosed as a result of voluntary HIV screening. On the other hand, 76 per cent of new HIV cases were detected through HIV testing during some form of medical care.