NHS offers free DIY HIV tests to boost testing rates

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Thursday 16th February 2023

The NHS is offering free DIY home HIV tests this week as part of a scheme to boost testing rates.

To mark National HIV Testing Week, residents in England will be able to access free home testing kits, which are sent through the post. The tests are compact and discreet. They fit through letterboxes and provide a result in just 15 minutes. Free HIV testing is widely available across the UK but most people attend clinics or community health services to undergo tests. Now, people in England will be able to order a free home test they can do themselves with minimal effort. The test kit analyses a tiny sample of blood obtained through a finger prick.

Within 15 minutes, the DIY HIV test will give a result, which is either reactive or negative. A negative result indicates that no trace of the virus has been detected. A reactive result shows that the individual may have HIV. In this case, a lab test is recommended to confirm or rule out a diagnosis. The NHS provides support and advice for people who need to organise a second test. The free DIY testing scheme is designed to boost testing rates, which have fallen significantly since the pandemic. Testing rates have increased among gay and bisexual men since restrictions were lifted, but figures suggest that rates have fallen by over 20% in women and over 40% in heterosexual men.

Regular testing every 3-6 months is recommended for individuals who have a high risk of HIV but experts are keen to encourage anyone who is sexually active and hasn’t had a test recently to take advantage of free testing options. Many people don’t experience symptoms of HIV until a long time after they contract the virus and the majority of individuals who have HIV get it from people who don’t know that they have the virus. HIV testing plays a crucial role in stemming the spread of infection and it can also lead to early diagnosis. This is important because modern drugs can control HIV symptoms and decrease levels of the virus to a point where it cannot be passed on to others. Treatment has come a long way since the 1990s when HIV was considered a death sentence. Most people who are diagnosed with HIV now can live a very long and healthy life. HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus, which affects the immune system, preventing the body from fighting infections and illnesses. AIDS is the name given to more severe infections, which develop when the body has been damaged extensively by HIV.

Today, the majority of people who have HIV in the UK will not develop AIDS. Symptoms of HIV infection are similar to flu. They usually occur between 2 and 6 weeks after infection and once they subside, many people don’t experience any additional symptoms for several months or years. Despite this, HIV can cause significant damage to the immune system so regular testing and early diagnosis are key. 

Recent statistics indicate that up to 4,500 people in England could be living with undiagnosed HIV. Charities like the Terrence Higgins Trust are urging people to come forward for tests to protect themselves and others. The trust has recently worked on a storyline with Eastenders producers and actors, which features a heterosexual character, Zack, being diagnosed with HIV. The aim is to raise awareness of the risks of HIV and encourage more heterosexual men and women to get tested.

Head of health programmes at the Terrence Higgins Trust, Taku Mukiwa, explained that it was important for anyone who is sexually active to understand the risk of contracting HIV. HIV is most common among gay and bisexual men and black African people in the UK but it can affect anyone who engages in sexual activity with others. DIY kits are easy and quick and they’re also convenient. In just 15 minutes, people can find out their HIV status and take the appropriate action. For those who don’t receive a negative result, there is help and support available.