Rapid HIV test kit not a hit yet

First Published – 02 May 2008

TAN HUI LENG huileng@mediacorp.com.sg

IT IS non-invasive and takes just 20 minutes to do at your neighbourhood GP — but the HIV rapid test kit made available from last year at more than 60 clinics has not had much impact on the rate of voluntary HIV screening.
According to statistics released by the Ministry of Health (MOH) on Tuesday, just 13 per cent of the record 422 HIV cases found last year were detected through voluntary HIV screening.The rate was the same in 2006.
Another 73 per cent were detected via HIV testing done in the course of some form of medical care.
At Changi General Hospital — where since December, adult inpatients have been given the choice to opt out of a HIV test — just 37 per cent of male and 25 per cent of female patients opted in from Dec 17 to
March 31.
While the non-anonymous nature of HIV testing at such facilities is oft cited as the reason for why voluntary screening is not popular, doctors TODAY spoke to said that ignorance and fear are bigger factors.
Dr Chua Thiam Eng, who runs one of three clinics offering anonymous testing, says it is the fear of being stigmatised and rejected that puts people off voluntary testing. “The difference between
HIV and other illnesses is that you face greater risk of isolation, loneliness and even abandonment,” said Dr Chua. “Many of the patients who come forward know they are at risk and it takes a lot of courage to be tested.”
Rockeby Biomed, the official distributor of the OraQuick test kit, sells 400 to 500 of the test kits every month — half of them to the anonymous clinics.

“I think if there are more anonymous testing sites, the take-up rate of voluntary testing would go up,” said its chief executive,Dr Tan Sze Wee.

General practitioner (GP)Wong Tien Hua, who practises at an Anchorvale clinic, said people are generally aware that GPs do provide HIV screening — “and that we have to notify the authorities” of positive results.
His clinic is one of the 196 listed on the MOH’s website which have gone for a training course on rapid HIV test kits.Five to 10 patients present themselves each month at his clinic for the HIV test, a number “within expectations”.
He stressed the need for more public education on voluntaryHIV testing for high-risk individuals. Its efficacy is evident as the take-up rate for the tests increase each time there is any publicity done on HIV, he said.
Overall, voluntary test rates have gone up since the 6 per cent in 2000. To further encourage those at risk to go for regular HIV testing, the MOH has amended the Infectious Diseases Act so that it is an offence for any HIV-positive person to have sex — regardless of whether he knows of his status, as long as he has reason to believe that he has been exposed to the risk of contracting the virus.
He is not liable, however, if he has informed his partner who agrees to undertake the risk, or if he has practised safe sex or tested negative before the act.
While Dr Chua said the MOH has to implement the measures to protect public interest, he added that he could not be sure this will actually help push up the voluntary test rate.