People can be put off from getting an HIV test for a variety of reasons, but new research says that if we were given the option of an HIV test while at the dentist, a majority of people would take it.
A first of its kind study surveyed whether 521 dental patients from Sydney, Australia would be willing to undergo what is known as rapid HIV testing at a dentist’s surgery, how they might prefer to be tested, and whether they would pay for the test.
Rapid HIV testing involves taking a blood or saliva sample, via a needle, pinprick or a saliva swab, and can be done within 20 minutes. The results are usually just as reliable as those done in the lab but, like the lab test, cannot gauge if someone has contracted HIV if they were infected less than three months ago.
What the researchers found was that 82 percent of the sample said they would take a rapid HIV test at a dentist’s surgery. Of them, about three-quarters wanted the saliva swab, while 15 percent opted for pinprick test, and just 8 percent wanted the traditional blood test.
In contrast to this, the Sydney University research team also asked how many dentists in the area might be willing to offer such tests — they aren’t currently available in dentist offices anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, only about 45 percent of dentists questioned felt prepared or even willing to offer rapid HIV testing services, but the researchers say that’s still a significant proportion and should be considered a positive sign.
Health organizations are particularly concerned that while overall rates of HIV infections are falling in many parts of the world, among groups like men who have sex with men (MSM) and trans women, infection rates are still rising, and sometimes sharply. A number of factors have been blamed for this, but one is that gay and bisexual men and trans women may fear getting tested because they don’t want to subject themselves to potential discrimination.
As such, health agencies have searched for ways to offer HIV testing facilities in other areas. Dentists are particularly advantageous because they will be able to offer a longterm relationship for patients which may allow them to feel more at ease. Compare that to the perhaps daunting prospect of a sexual health clinic and staff with whom you may not be familiar, and the positives of this approach become clear.
There’s also the fact that this method would tag on HIV testing to another relatively regular activity: seeing a dentist. As such, it might help improve the consistency in people getting checked.
Lead researcher Dr Anthony Santella is quoted by The Canberra Times as saying: “Dentists are well placed to offer rapid HIV testing because they’re located throughout the community, have ongoing relationships with their patients, and have the necessary training and expertise to recognise systemic diseases that have oral manifestations, such as HIV/AIDS.”
There are more advantages, too. If HIV tests were routinely offered, it might catch people who weren’t aware they were HIV positive and therefore allow them to get treatment and also take precautions during future sexual encounters. It usually takes about three years from the time of infection for a person to be officially diagnosed with HIV if they do not get tested regularly. Shortening that time-frame could therefore help to fight rising infections and get those numbers under control.
Would this method work in the United States and Europe? More research would have to be done but in nations with already established front-line services, there seems a good chance that it could reach people who may not otherwise have accessed HIV tests, and as such exploring it as an option could be worthwhile.
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