Researchers analyse HIV self-testing among men who have sex with men

02 August 2016

Researchers analyse HIV self-testing among men who have sex with men

Researchers have published the first UK study analysing self-testing in HIV.

The first legally-approved self-test HIV kit, allowing users to get a result in 15 minutes, was launched in the UK last year. Kits are ordered online and then the kit uses a small amount of blood from a finger prick sample.

Gay and other men who have sex with men (MSM) are the group at highest risk of acquiring HIV in the UK. In 2013, they represented 54% of all new diagnoses. There are 3,250 new HIV diagnoses among MSM, while an estimated one in five MSM remain undiagnosed.

Increased testing and early treatment has been shown to significantly reduce HIV incidence in MSM.

A team of researchers led by Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) and the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, claim that self-testing represents a major opportunity to reduce barriers to HIV testing and enhance prevention and access to care.

In a survey of 1,000 MSM in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, funded by the Medical Research Council, self-test awareness was moderate (55%). However, willingness to use the test was high (89%). Men who went online/used an app to meet sexual partners were significantly more likely to be willing to use self-testing kits. 

Further analysis with expert focus groups highlighted the overall benefits of self-testing; it was understood as convenient, discreet, accessible, and with a low burden to services. However, some suggested that self-testing could encourage riskier sexual behaviours and less engagement with healthcare services and opportunities for HIV prevention.

GCU Professor Paul Flowers said: “Self-testing represents a welcome and currently under-utilised development within the HIV prevention tool kit. Our findings anticipate that it has great potential to be a transformative technology.”

Dr Lisa McDaid from the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, said: “Self-testing provides new opportunities for HIV testing, which could help to reduce undiagnosed infections and late diagnosis. To realise its potential, we need to know more about who will use it, and in which circumstances, and what might be the consequences for existing health inequalities.”

Aidan Collins, Head of Policy and Campaigning, HIV Scotland, said: “Since restrictions on the sale of self-testing kits were lifted, HIV Scotland has undertaken significant work to ensure their safe use. However, until now, research into the acceptability of HIV self-testing in Scotland was limited.  It’s encouraging to see this new research clearly show a high willingness among men who have sex with men to use self-test kits, particularly as this group continues to be the most at risk of HIV in Scotland. It’s important to remember that while HIV self-testing is an option, it may not be the most appropriate for everyone and should form part of a comprehensive approach to HIV prevention, testing and treatment.”

Dr David Asboe, Chair of the British HIV Association (BHIVA), said: “For men who have sex with men, regular and frequent testing is critical to reducing the incidence of new HIV infections. This study highlights the usefulness of self-testing as a supplement to testing strategies, rather than a replacement. We must also ensure that men testing positive outside of care settings are swiftly engaged with the appropriate professional services for counselling, support and treatment.”

The study has been published in HIV Medicine this month.

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