Should Aids testing be mandatory?

First Published  – 20 Jul 2007

TAN HUI LENG

huileng@mediacorp.com.sg

AMID startling statistics that one in 350 hospital patients are HIV-positive, at least one voluntary welfare organisation here has called for mandatory testing of high-risk groups, in what some have described as a highly controversial and intrusive move.

The group — Focus on the Family — said it would be submitting a proposal, drafted together with doctors, to the Ministry of Health (MOH) soon.

High-risk groups, such as men who visit sex workers and sexually-active gay men, should go for compulsory testing, said its director, Mr Tan Thuan Seng.

“We should not allow people who choose high-risk lifestyles to avoid testing and thereby subject innocents in their households and medical workers to unfair risks of infection,” said Mr Tan.

“These undiagnosed infected are walking time-bombs as they have the potential to knowingly or unknowingly infect others.”

On Tuesday, it was revealed that a recent MOH study of over 3,000 anonymous blood samples collected in hospitals showed that 0.28 per cent of those who thought they were free of the disease were in fact HIV-positive.

This was followed by the news that the MOH is investigating the case of a man suspected of spreading the virus knowingly.

However, MPs and Aids volunteers TODAY spoke to were concerned about how the identification of such HIV-positive carriers is intrusive and stigmatises those affected.

“In implementing it, it’s hard to not intrude into the privacy and rights of individuals,” said chairman of the Aids Business Alliance, Mr Zulkifli Baharuddin.

Mr Benedict Jacob-Thambiah, an Action for Aids volunteer and the programme director of Heat Consultants, which provides HIV education at the workplace, agreed.

“Mandatory testing of any group only serves to stigmatise, isolate and deepen discrimination. It is not something I would advocate as I do not think any Singaporean should be subject to something that is patently wrong. It does no one any good,” he said.

Since December 2004, pregnant women have been subjected to opt-out HIV tests as part of standard antenatal screening here. Only one case of mother-to-child transmission has occurred, and that was because the mother refused her HIV test until very late in her pregnancy, according to the MOH.

Last year, Singapore experienced a record high of 357 new HIV-positive cases.

Making testing compulsory — even for small high-risk groups — could pose some implementation problems, said the deputy chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Health, Dr Lam Pin Min.

“It’s hard to identify persons in the high-risk groups unless they declare it themselves,” he said. “It also makes it very difficult to draw a line between whether you visit sex workers or are sexually liberal or promiscuous.

“So, if you make it a law to self-declare, does it mean that you’re breaking the law if you’re in one category or the other?”

Those whom TODAY spoke to were all in favour of better public education, particularly as the HIV/Aids situation here is not seen as dire.

“I don’t think the situation has come to the point where there is a real epidemic that requires an intrusion into private lives,” said Aids Business Alliance chairman Zulkifli. “We always try to persuade and cajole people, and, in most cases, they respond.”