Although there was a 12% increase in the number of HIV tests taken last year – 799,808 compared with 712,084 in 2006 – the HPA believes a third of the estimated 73,000 people with HIV in the UK are unaware they are infected.
Current UK practice at most GUM clinics is to offer an HIV test to anybody who requests a sexual health screen, which includes tests for chlamydia and gonorrhoea.
But Gwenda Hughes, head of the STI section at the HPA, said she would like to see HIV tests become part of the whole sexual health screen package at GUM clinics, with patients who do not want the test having to ‘opt out’.
This could help reduce the number of people leaving a GUM clinic with an undiagnosed HIV infection, she said last week at a briefing on the agency’s annual report on sexually transmitted infections.
Jacky Rogers, chairperson of the RCN sexual health forum, backed the idea. ‘We are trying to de-stigmatise HIV testing – this could form part of a strategy to get everybody to take a test,’ she said.
‘As long as it is clearly advertised and explained – and people know the support is there if they test positive – a lot of clinics would prefer an opt out system,’ she added.
But Justin Gaffney, chairperson of the Genito-Urinary Nurses Association, was more cautious.
‘The anxiety of making HIV testing completely opt out is that some patients will not realise they are being tested for HIV,’ he said.
‘Once it gets out, it could deter some from accessing sexual health services, because although they want a screening, they do not want an HIV test,’ he added.
Latest HPA figures show the number of newly diagnosed cases of HIV in 16 to 24-year-olds has risen from 258 cases in 1998 to 702 in 2007.