November 29, 2007 / 10:44 PM / 12 years ago

U.S. aims to take HIV tests to high-risk people

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON, Nov 29 (Reuters) - A program backed by U.S. health authorities brought HIV tests to about 24,000 people at high risk for infection who otherwise might have been missed by AIDS prevention efforts, officials said on Thursday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention described the results of a program it funded from 2004 to 2006 in which eight private community-based AIDS outreach organizations offered rapid HIV tests in seven big cities.

The program was intended to bring testing to injection drug users, homosexual and bisexual men and other people at high risk for infection by the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS rather than wait for them to come in for testing.

"We actually went to a variety of venues — and those included places like parks, shelters, night clubs, health fairs, syringe exchange sites (giving clean needles to injection drug users). The idea here was to find places where people at high risk might congregate or might seek services," said Dr. Patrick Sullivan, a CDC AIDS prevention official.

"The demonstration project has ended and we hope to be able to integrate the best parts of this into ongoing prevention programs," Sullivan said.

The project was run in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington and Kansas City, Missouri.

About 23,900 people were given a rapid HIV test for which results are ready in 20 to 40 minutes rather than the couple of weeks typically needed for the conventional blood test. In all, 267 of them, about 1 percent, turned out to be HIV infected.

The accuracy of the quick test is comparable to conventional tests but it costs more. Representatives of the eight organizations, not CDC staffers, performed the testing.

About 39 percent of those getting the tests were black, 31 percent Hispanic and 21 percent white, the CDC said.

Half reported having no health insurance and 9 percent were homeless, the CDC said. Of those tested, about 17 percent were men who have sex with men, a comparatively low proportion compared to the overall population of HIV-infected Americans.

Sullivan said more than 1 million Americans are currently infected with HIV and about a quarter of those are unaware they are infected.

The CDC estimates that up to 70 percent of the new sexually transmitted infections in the United States are caused by these 25 percent of infected people unaware of their HIV status.

"The problem of undiagnosed HIV infection is one of the things that we see as important in confronting the HIV epidemic in the U.S.," Sullivan said in a telephone interview.

"We felt like based on this experience, this kind of HIV testing in outreach settings really can help reach people at high risk of infection, including racial and ethnic minorities, and is a good complement to the kind of testing in health care settings that’s already being implemented," Sullivan said.

More than 33 million people globally are infected with HIV. There is no cure although a cocktail of drugs can keep the infection suppressed and patients healthy. (Editing by Maggie Fox and Todd Eastham)

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