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Efforts increased to combat HIV/AIDS in B.C.

According to Island Health, there are approximately 3500 people on Vancouver Island living with HIV who don't know it.

Despite significant advances in treatment, according to a recent report from the office of the Provincial Health Officer, "there continues to be significant and avoidable morbidity and mortality occurring amongst HIV infected individuals, much of which is attributable to late diagnosis."

A new "made-in-B.C." pilot program now has two Vancouver Island-based pharmacies offering rapid HIV tests to their customers, free of charge, in an attempt to remedy that situation.

"The best way to ensure early diagnosis of HIV is to make testing as easy as possible," said Dr. Brendan Carr, president and CEO of Island Health in a news release last month. "By removing the barriers to taking an HIV test - especially by offering testing in places where people already encounter the health care system - we can reduce the stigma associated with HIV."

The new rapid HIV tests deliver a preliminary result in less than five minutes, according to the release, meaning you could get initial test results while waiting for another prescription to fill, or while browsing the magazine racks.

The pilot program will be evaluated over the course of a year to measure quality of care, customer uptake, testing volumes, diagnoses and cost effectiveness before the future of the program can be projected.

Though free HIV testing has previously been available at community testing sites, hospitals, walk-in-clinics and through family physicians, the rapid, "while you wait," testing is a first for Island pharmacies.

The only two pharmacies on the Island to offer the service are in Nanaimo and Victoria, however.

According to Val Wilson, communications officer for Island Health, there are no plans at this point to expand the program into smaller communities, but that could change once results can be gleaned from the year-long pilot.

HIV/AIDS testing has become somewhat of a focus for the B.C. Ministry of Health in recent years. A 2012 announcement from the government of a $19.9-million expansion in funding for HIV treatment was followed by a recent report, testing guidelines and recommendations that adults should be routinely tested every five years. This routine testing should happen every year for people in populations with a higher burden of HIV infections, such as gay men, sex trade workers, users of injected drugs and Aboriginal people.

The new guidelines also recommend that medical practitioners order an HIV test for all patients when ordering diagnostic blood-work for a new or worsening medical condition, or upon testing or diagnosis of a sexually transmitted infection, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C or Tuberculosis  and once during every pregnancy.

For more information of the new HIV testing guidelines and recommendations, go online to hivguide.ca.

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