Pharmacies in Victoria, Nanaimo give free rapid HIV tests

Two Vancouver Island pharmacies are offering rapid HIV tests to the public free of charge.

Announced by Island Health on Monday, the pilot project hopes to reach the estimated 3,500 people who are living with HIV but don’t know it. If the year-long pilot goes well, the program could be expanded to other pharmacies in B.C.

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To begin with, the test is available at Medicine Shoppe pharmacies in Victoria at 104-1964 Fort St. and in Nanaimo at 22-1150 Terminal Park Ave.

Free HIV testing is already available through community testing sites, hospitals, walk-in-clinics and through family physicians, said Island Health. Offering testing at pharmacies might or might not complement existing HIV-testing strategies.

“The best way to ensure early diagnosis of HIV is to make testing as easy as possible,” said Dr. Brendan Carr, CEO of Island Health.

“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 by HIV.”

The knowledge that you have HIV can save your life, doctors say. Treatments today are more successful than those of the past. A person living with HIV and taking prescribed medication is up to 96 per cent less likely to transmit the virus to others, Island Health said.

Last month, two Lower Mainland pharmacies began offering free HIV testing and have already tested 100 people.

Rapid HIV tests deliver results in less than five minutes. They are done using blood collected by a finger poke that is applied to a test strip. The test measures antibodies for HIV.

The cost of testing is nothing compared to the cost of being infected with HIV, said Dr. Dee Hoyano, medical health officer for Island Health.

“You have to be on medication your whole life, but we do know that people who are untreated and develop complications can spend a lot of time in hospital.”

Untreated people can also pass the disease on to others through unprotected sex or sharing intravenous needles.

Those who attend pharmacies for the rapid test but who are worried about confidentiality can relax knowing the results the pharmacy gets are not reported to health authorities.

The initial symptoms of HIV are non-specific and often flu-like, Hoyano said.

“That’s why a lot of people, when they first get infected with HIV, don’t realize it,” she said. “They’ll feel ill for a couple of days, a couple of weeks and then they’re fine and they can live for years like that.”

The disease progresses and the person’s immune system deteriorates.

Overall, the number of new HIV infections is decreasing, Hoyano said.

“We still have some groups where the rates aren’t coming down as fast as we’d like,” such as men involved with gay sex.

The pharmacy testing will benefit those who are unlikely to be tested in other ways due to the stigma attached to HIV, said Heidi Exner of AIDS Vancouver Island.

“A lot of people who visit pharmacies are regular folk, so visiting a pharmacist where they may ask other health-care questions may be a great access point for them,” said Exner.

Pharmacies that carry out this testing will learn more about HIV testing and treatment, she said: “It can’t help but do some good.”

The pilot project is funded through B.C.’s Seek and Treat for the Optimal Prevention (STOP) of HIV/AIDS program.

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