The First HIV Self-Testing Kit Aims to Cut Down on Late Diagnoses

HIV is at an all-time high in the UK, but around a quarter of people who carry the virus don't know they have it.

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Jul 14 2015, 10:15am

Image: BioSURE

HIV is currently at an all-time high in the UK, where it affects nearly 110,000 people. An estimated 26,000 are unaware that they are carrying the virus, which can be 10 times as deadly when diagnosed in the later stages of the infection.

For many, then, the launch of the first legally approved HIV self-testing kit in the UK in April could prove lifesaving. Following the overturning of legislation banning such devices early last year, diagnostics company BioSURE began manufacturing a product that could deliver results in 15 minutes, without the need to send the data for processing at a lab.

The finger-pricking test reads how many antibodies—proteins the body makes in response to the virus—are active in the blood, and can be bought online for £29.95 (about $46).

"Creating the kit was a long process," explained Brigette Bard, BioSURE's managing director, "because we had to prove that it could reach the same level of accuracy and achieve the same outcomes as a test undertaken by a healthcare professional. In a way, it's almost over-engineered: there's a lot of information in each pack, down to how big the drop of blood should be, but this means it's straightforward and that everybody can use it in the same way—whether they have English as a second language, or are dyslexic."

Image: BioSURE

The closest alternative available in the UK at present is the National Health Service' s home sampling kit, which requires a blood sample 160 times larger than BioSURE's test and must be sent to a laboratory by post, with results available between three to five days later.

Bard is hopeful that the home test, which claims a 99.7 percent accuracy rate, will play a role in driving the rising rates of HIV in the UK back down by enabling the discretion and convenience sexual health clinics cannot afford. With restricted hours and pre-booked appointments often unavailable, the kit marks a much-needed acknowledgement of our modern lifestyles, offering an on-demand service somewhat akin to a disease-diagnosing Uber. With ever-mounting pressure on NHS staff, the idea of disease management from one's own home, as opposed to a hospital miles away, is increasingly attractive.

It's also a crucial step in HIV healthcare, which has often been focused on the issue of developing a preventative vaccine. Less has been done to tackle the issue of late diagnoses, and thereby prevent unintentional transmission.

As the likelihood of contracting HIV after having unsafe sex with someone new is far higher than that of sleeping with someone who is receiving treatment for the disease, rolling out testing more widely could be a vital solution for both prevention and containment.

Given that one in four diagnoses in 2013 were "severely late," and that late diagnosis makes sufferers of HIV/AIDS significantly more likely to die within their first year of testing positive than those diagnosed early on, a renewed focus on the accessibility of diagnostic tests is paramount. (It should however be noted that BioSURE recommends people check positive results with a professional and warn that the test may not detect infections in the last three months).

6,000 new cases of the virus were diagnosed in Britain last year alone

The self-testing kit is not only forging a new frontier in the technology it provides: it's also creating a dialogue between those at risk. BioSure has teamed up with Pebl—a platform which facilitates anonymous online discussion—to connect those who have purchased the product. "I am a gay man and have never had an HIV test," wrote one commenter. "Over the course of the past 15 years I have had many sexual partners... I have always been too nervous to go and get tested and worried about the implications on my life if I was to test positive."

"My nearest GUM [sexual health] clinic is 10 miles away with very restricted opening times," added another. "This was quick and easy and now I have the confirmation I need to move forwards."

Gay men and black African men and women still have the highest rates of the virus in the UK, but it is women over 50 who are the fastest growing demographic. "A lot of women come out of long term relationships and no longer need barrier contraception [birth control], and just don't think contracting the virus happens to them as they're heterosexual," Bard said. "We need to educate around that."

Another group in BioSure's sights is the under-22s, whose education around HIV, Bard believes, is "overlooked."

With 6,000 new cases of the virus diagnosed in Britain last year alone, it is hard to disagree with her assessment. Perhaps now, with results available minutes after the prick of a finger, this trend may finally begin to abate.

@charlottelytton

Modern Medicine is a series on Motherboard about how health care and medical technology can move forward so rapidly while still being stuck in the past. Follow along here.