As 7,2 million people in South Africa live with the knowledge that they are HIV positive and the government’s anti-retroviral programme is improving the life expectancy of many, ‘Know your status’ has been chosen as the rallying cry of World AIDS Day 2018. The introduction of HIV self-screening kits into the market, has made it even easier to support this call, enabling consumers to buy an over the counter test kits from local pharmacies and test in the privacy of their homes.
According to AVERT.org South Africa has made huge improvements in getting people to test for HIV in recent years – and is now almost meeting the first of the 90-90-90 targets, with 86% of people aware of their status. The organisation reports that South Africa still has a way to go to reach people living with HIV who are not aware of their status, and to ensuring that they receive quality care and prevention services. Unfortunately, many barriers to HIV testing remain. Stigma and discrimination still deter people from taking an HIV test. Access to confidential HIV testing is still an area of concern and many people still only get tested after becoming ill and symptomatic.
Jackie Maimin, CEO of the Independent Community Pharmacy Association (ICPA) says that South Africa has the largest and most high-profile HIV epidemic in the world, with an estimated 7.2 million people living with HIV in 2017. “We also account for a third of all new HIV infections in southern Africa. In 2017, there were 270,000 new HIV infections and 110,000 South Africans died from AIDS-related illnesses.”
According to Maimin, HIV testing is essential for expanding treatment and ensuring that all people living with HIV can lead healthy and productive lives.
“The good news is that there are now a number of approved HIV self-screening kits available from pharmacies in South Africa that allow people to screen for the virus in the privacy of their own homes – the tests are highly specific for the HIV virus with 99% accuracy and provide a valuable indicator of the presence of antibodies to HIV infection.”
Maimin explains that previously, South African pharmacies were prohibited from selling HIV test kits but that the ban has been lifted and HIV self-screening kits are now available for sale. These kits are specifically designed for home use and are not the test kits used by pharmacists and nurses inside the pharmacy.
About the HIV self-screening kits
There are two types of approved HIV self-screening tests – those that use a blood sample and those that use a saliva sample. Both are easy to use and give a reliable screening result. Maimin explains: “The self-screening tests work by detecting the body’s natural antibodies to HIV infection. In addition, the self-screening tests are completely safe to use during pregnancy and can be used from the age of 12 upwards. The self-screening kits are not intended for use by people already on antiretroviral treatment.”
Maimin cautions that one must remember that it takes between 6 to 12 weeks for the body’s immune system to create antibodies to the HIV virus: “As an HIV self-screening test is looking for the antibodies – and not the actual virus – it is possible to get a ‘false’ negative test result during this window period. For this reason, it’s important to test regularly if you are at high risk of contracting HIV, and if you suspect that you may have been exposed to the virus, to re-test after a recommended 12 weeks to confirm a negative result.”
Counselling and help
The HIV screening test kits available from pharmacies can be done easily, safely and completely privately. However, should people be extremely nervous about testing alone or want advice and assistance, there is professional counselling readily available at your local community pharmacy to answer any questions, assist with the interpretation of results and help with referral to appropriate health facilities if necessary. There are currently over 1100 ICPA pharmacies with 2 500 pharmacists and over 20 000 support personnel across South Africa available to assist people with queries regarding HIV, HIV testing and access to care. ICPA pharmacies are actively partnering with other healthcare stakeholders to improve access to quality, affordable healthcare to our nation.
“ICPA hopes that the availability of these self-screening kits will boost the number of people screening for HIV and therefore the number of people who know their status. Knowing one’s status is empowering, it allows an individual to make health-related decisions around early treatment if positive, or to actively engage in safer practices to stay HIV-negative.”
Maimin concludes by advising that independent community pharmacies also now dispense PrEP. “Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, is a way for people who do not have HIV but who are at substantial risk of getting it to prevent HIV infection by taking a one tablet every day. The tablet contains two medicines that are used in combination with other medicines to treat HIV. South Africa was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to fully approve PrEP, which is now being made available to people at high risk of infection.”