HIV blood tests to be rolled out to more hospitals

2 months ago 99

Sir Elton JohnImage source, PA Media

Image caption,

Sir Elton John has campaigned on tackling HIV

By Jack Fenwick & Adam Smith

BBC Politics

Opt-out blood tests for HIV, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C will be rolled out to a further 46 hospitals across England, the government has announced.

Health Secretary Victoria Atkins said the new £20m programme would lead to earlier diagnoses and treatment.

It comes ahead of a speech by Sir Elton John at an event in Parliament.

The rock legend will urge ministers to do more to hit the target of eliminating new HIV cases in England by 2030.

Ms Atkins and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer are also expected to speak at the event.

Under the scheme, anyone having a blood test in selected hospital A&E units has also been tested for HIV, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C, unless they opted out.

The trials have been taking place for the last 18 months in 33 hospitals in London, Greater Manchester, Sussex and Blackpool, where prevalence is classed by the NHS as "very high".

Figures released by the NHS earlier show those pilots have identified more than 3,500 cases of the three bloodborne infections since April 2022, including more than 580 HIV cases.

Following the government's announcement, opt-out testing will now be available in areas such as the West Midlands, Liverpool and Leicester, where HIV prevalence is classed as high.

Ms Atkins said: "The more people we can diagnose, the more chance we have of ending new transmissions of the virus and the stigma wrongly attached to it."

She added that rolling out the tests to more hospitals would help ensure early diagnoses so people "can be given the support and the medical treatment they need to live not just longer lives but also higher quality lives".

Sam, whose real name is not being used, lives in Greater Manchester and is in his 40s. Last year, he had a blood test after going to A&E following an accident.

"I got a phone call two days after being in A&E," he says, "just saying to me we've got some concerns about a blood test that was done at the time. They asked me to come in and do some further tests.

"I hadn't realised about the opt-out testing at the time, so I wasn't expecting a phone call from a health clinic. I thought it was about a survey or something about my experience in A&E."

After a two-week wait, Sam was diagnosed with HIV.

Media caption,

“Had that test not happened, I may not be here today”

"It felt like this was happening to somebody else. I wasn't expecting it. My family don't know, and I don't want to cause them any distress.

"And I feel maybe their lack of knowledge about the HIV virus and the 80s and how things were then, it makes me a lot more reluctant to tell them."

The opt-out trials were designed to identify cases in people unlikely to get tested at a sexual health clinic and are based on similar bloodborne infection testing programmes already in place for pregnant women.

The NHS says 42% of HIV diagnoses in the UK are made late, when the immune system has already been significantly damaged.

Sam now takes one tablet a day and goes for a check-up every six months.

"The rest of my life is completely as it was before," he says.

But that's not the case for everyone.

Jackie, who lives in the West Midlands where HIV prevalence is high but opt-out testing is not available, was given a late diagnosis.

"Nobody had got a clue what was wrong with me," she says.

"Losing my hair, losing weight, thrush in my mouth and I kept going back to the GP. And it wasn't until my breathing got so bad, which was a few years down the line, they put me in hospital."

Doctors still could not figure out what was making Jackie so ill. Then eventually, they decided to carry out an HIV test.

She believes there were opportunities much earlier on when she could have been given a test.

What is HIV?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus - which weakens the immune systemMore than 94,000 people are living with HIV and accessing care in EnglandVery successful treatment means most people affected can live long, healthy livesHIV medication reduces virus levels so much that passing on the virus to sexual partners is now only a tiny riskHIV diagnoses went up from 3,118 in 2021 to 3,805 in 2022Most of that rise is down to people previously diagnosed abroad being given a diagnosis and care on arrival in England.Those diagnosed late tend to be women, who are less likely to take an HIV testOverall, more and more people are accessing tests as well as pills to reduce chances of getting HIV through sex

Sir Elton, whose Aids Foundation played a key role in pioneering opt-out testing, will be speaking at an event in Parliament later hosted by the all-party parliamentary group for HIV and Aids.

The event has been organised to mark World Aids Day and the end of Sir Elton's touring career, and he is expected to specifically mention opt-out testing.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Sir Elton John and his husband David Furnish at a fundraising event for Aids Foundation with singer Rina Sawayama

Sam is supportive of further opt-out testing, but believes more could be done to make clear that people are being tested in the first place.

"I'm very happy that I went through it now," he says.

"At the time, I did feel a little bit ambushed. I felt that maybe some of my rights had been taken away from me. I thought that was my choice to make.

"However, it's obviously worked in my favour because I don't know for a fact I would have said yes or no to that test."

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