Better screening leads to better prevention of HIV transmission

February 19th, 2013

In Canada, an estimated 27% of HIV-positive people are unaware of their status. In Québec, more than half (59.4%) of the people newly diagnosed between 2002 and 2010 had never been screened for HIV before*.

What’s more, recourse to HIV screening services often comes late; in 2010 nearly a fifth (17.9%) of newly diagnosed cases had already reached the stage of AIDS or presented with chronic symptomatic infections at the time of screening.

An equally serious challenge is the fact that the risk of transmission is higher during the primary stage of infection (see below); a study conducted by Québec researchers in 2007 showed that 50% of new cases of HIV were transmitted by people who had been infected within the previous six months.

This makes early screening doubly important. At the individual level, early screening leads to getting the necessary medical help and reduces the risk of serious infection. At the collective level, it reduces the risk of transmission: not only do people who are aware of their HIV-positive status protect their partners better than those who are unaware, but it’s also commonly accepted that taking antiviral medication reduces the risk of HIV transmission.

More frequent and widespread screening, as well as prevention programs targeted to the most at-risk populations, are still key factors in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. It’s therefore essential to increase screening opportunities in Québec by including this as one of the services offered by the CSSS, clinics specialized in STIs, hospitals, and community-based HIV/AIDS organizations**.

In this context, the discussion currently underway in Canada about self-tests becomes increasingly important. Given that self-tests are already available in the United States, now is the time to seriously assess the issues surrounding this option, and if necessary, develop an approach to prevention and support that includes self-testing. This could allow for increased screening opportunities, particularly among high risk groups without access to regular screening.

*Portrait des infections transmissibles sexuellement et par le sang (ITSS) au Québec – Année 2010 (et projections 2011) by the Ministère de la santé et des services sociaux

**Resource guide (in French)

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