Free HIV tests may be coming to a drugstore near you, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced on Tuesday. The CDC is rolling out a pilot program to see if it can making HIV testing as routine as a blood-pressure check.
The $1.2 million program will offer free and fast HIV tests in pharmacies and in-store clinics in 12 cities and 12 rural areas. The trial program, which is targeting areas with high HIV infection rates or low rates of testing, will inform the development of a nationwide model to allow pharmacists and retail clinic staff to do widespread, routine HIV screening.
“We know that getting people tested, diagnosed and linked to care are critical steps in reducing new HIV infections,” Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention, said in a statement. “By bringing HIV testing into pharmacies, we believe we can reach more people by making testing more accessible and also reduce the stigma associated with HIV.”
The Associated Press reports that the tests are already available in seven locations, including Washington, D.C., Oakland, Calif., and an Indian health service clinic in Montana. The CDC will determine 17 more locations soon. During the two-year pilot program, the CDC will train staff in community pharmacies and retail clinics; the hope is that such venues, which are convenient and easily accessible, will help more Americans get tested for HIV. Millions of consumers enter pharmacies every week, and the CDC estimates that 30% of the U.S. population lives within a 10-minute drive of a retail clinic. Compared with conventional health-care settings and HIV-testing sites, pharmacies and clinics might make it easier for people who are anxious about getting tested.
An estimated 1.1 million Americans have HIV, but nearly 20% don’t know they’re infected. “Our goal is to make HIV testing as routine as a blood pressure check,” Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, said in the statement. “This initiative is one example of how we can make testing routine and help identify the hundreds of thousands of Americans who are unaware that they are infected.”
At one Walgreens store in Washington’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood, where the HIV tests have been available since May, customers have shown interest. “Because Walgreen’s does a variety of testing there is no stigma basically associated with coming here. You could be getting a cholesterol test or an HIV test — it’s the same clinic room for all of our testing and immunizations. It’s very private,” store manager Bethany Kuechenmeister told the Washington Post.
The test involves a swab inside the mouth and takes about 20 minutes to render a result. The test is correct 99% of the time; if results come back positive, pharmacy employees will refer customers to a local health department or health-care provider for a lab blood test to confirm the finding, and also to receive counseling and treatment. Pharmacy and retail-clinic employees are expected to deliver the results in person to ensure the customer’s privacy.
The CDC recommends that all teens and adults get tested for HIV at least once in their lives.