When it comes to HIV/AIDS, the new word in the medical world is self-testing.
With the advent of new technologies in medicine, you and I can know our HIV status with a simple test that can be taken in the privacy of our homes.
Nowadays, testing yourself for HIV means that you and other people can use oral fluid or blood-finger-pricks to discover their status in a private and convenient setting. Results are ready within 20 minutes or less.
Some tests only require a swab of saliva and your result is ready after 30 minutes.
This is important because of the stigma associated with the viral disease. Most people are often scared to take the test in laboratories or health centres where they can run into any one they know.
These fears are profound and not unfounded. We have had instances where untrained nurses carelessly disclosed the HIV status of patients to other people.
Being able to test yourself makes it easier to accept the result, says consultant haematologist, Dr. Kunle Adetayo.
Adetayo says that despite the counselling given to patients before testing, having someone else disclose their results is often a blow that many may not recover from.
“I would rather be the first to know that I am HIV positive or not. It’s a diagnosis most people would prefer to know. Then you can quietly walk into a clinic and get registered for treatment, knowing you have scaled the first hurdle.
“Self-testing will also increase the population of people who know their HIV status because believe it or not, more than half of those infected do not know and they will keep transmitting it,” he says.
Adetayo painted the right picture. According to the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Dr. Margaret Chan, new statistics show that over 40 per cent of those infected with HIV are unaware of their status.
Chan says, “Millions of people with HIV are still missing out on life-saving treatment, which can also prevent HIV transmission to others.
“HIV self-testing should open the door for many more people to know their HIV status and find out how to get treatment and access prevention services.”
Doctors note that even though over 90 million Nigerians know that HIV/AIDS exists and kills when not detected early, they are yet to get tested.
A report by the Federal Ministry of Health also estimates that more than 70 per cent of Nigerian population do not know their HIV/AIDS status.
Public health physician, Dr. Zizi Egbuwoku- Imatorbhebe, says that knowing one’s HIV status saves rather than kills.
She says that although there is currently no cure for HIV/AIDS, there are drugs and treatments, such as anti-retroviral drugs, which have been proved to slow down the course of the disease and infected people who use these drugs can live a long and healthy life.
Imatorbhebe, who defines HIV as a virus that attacks the immune system, the body’s natural defence system, explains that the sooner one gets tested, the sooner one can access treatment and information to help manage the condition and delay the onset of AIDS(the advanced stages of the infection), should one test positive for the disease.
She adds, “We can’t overstate the importance of testing for HIV to ensure an early diagnosis. People respond better to treatment when they are diagnosed at an earlier stage of the disease.
“Knowing your HIV status is the key to both effective treatment and to preventing onward transmission. HIV, when not treated, quickly advances to AIDS. Make no mistake about it, AIDS kills because the immune system would be too weak to resist infection by then.”
Apart from getting treatment, Imatorbhebe states that by not knowing one’s status, one puts one’s spouse, siblings, parents and children at risk of getting infected.
She states that since HIV can be transmitted in many ways, which include blood-blood contact like blood transfusion, fluid-fluid contact such as vaginal, oral sex, anal sex and blood transfusion, it is possible to infect others without knowing it.
For instance, an infected pregnant woman can pass HIV to her baby or babies during pregnancy, during delivery and through breast feeding if she does not know she is infected.
However, if a pregnant woman tests positive for HIV, appropriate treatment can reduce the risk of infecting the baby. Experts state that HIV-positive women have about a one-in-four chance of infecting their baby during pregnancy or birth but getting treatment before child birth can reduce this figure to about one in 12.
Imatorhebe says, “You don’t have to have had sex before you contract HIV. Babies have got it from their parents who did not know that they had it. Siblings have contracted it from each other through blood contact without knowing.
“But if you find out you are infected, you can make sure that you protect your sex partner from becoming infected. If more people know their HIV status and use the knowledge to act responsibly, the pandemic can be better controlled.”
Remember that giving out this information is entirely your decision. Health professionals and counsellors, who conduct and discuss the test with you, must, by law, keep the results strictly confidential.
Are you ready to know your own HIV status? If you are ready, walk to a pharmacy nearest to you, ask for a self-test kit and do the needful.