The U.S. Preventative Task Force has recommended that every American between the ages of 15 and 65 get tested for HIV. According to ABC News, the task force, an independent panel formed of mainly primary care providers, hopes to curb transmission of HIV and to speed treatment to people who are already infected.
Dr. Doug Owens, a leader of the task force and professor of medicine at Stanford University, told ABC, “HIV screening is an important way to help people who have HIV, and also to prevent transmission.” People who are receiving treatment, he said, reduce the levels of virus in their blood, making transmission more difficult and therefore less likely.
The number of Americans living with HIV has been increasing steadily over the last five years. Up to 20 percent of the 1.2 million people in the U.S. who are currently carrying HIV are unaware that they have contracted the virus.
Dr. Carlos Del Rio, co-director of the Emory Center for AIDS research in Atlanta, said that the recommendations about universal testing could be a major breakthrough in reducing the incidence of the disease.
“This news about screening is very exciting,” he said.
Del Rio said that testing has historically been recommended for people with multiple sex partners, people who use intravenous drugs and their partners as well as other high risk groups. Physicians and caregivers, however, were finding that up to a quarter of HIV-positive patients reported no risk factors.
“People are terrible at knowing their own risk,” Del Rio said, hence the task force’s recommendation for wholesale testing. “And doctors are terrible at asking them about risk. It can be difficult to discuss sex and drugs with our patients.”
Organizations like AMFAR and the CDC have called for universal HIV testing in the past. The U.S. Preventative Task Force’s guidelines are used by Medicare and other insurance companies to determine what medical tests constitute a complete regimen. The group, which publishes “evidence-based” assessments of health procedures and practices, has previously recommended universal testing for breast cancer, colon cancer and high blood levels of cholesterol.
Universal testing for HIV will also reduce the stigma associated with seeking testing and treatment. Dr. Patricia J. Emmanuel, who co-wrote the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines for HIV testing, told the Los Angeles Times that routine HIV testing “helps to create an environment where HIV testing is another medical screening test, not something so special.”
In order for the task force to recommend a test, the test in question must be accurate, treatment for the disease or disorder must be available and the benefits of treatment should outweigh the potential risks or harms.
HIV and AIDS treatments are extending the life spans of HIV-positive people. Coupled with the possibility of slowing and someday eliminating transmission, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force felt it was its duty to rule in favor of universal testing.
The United Nations announced on Tuesday that the number of AIDS deaths worldwide has fallen for the fifth year in a row. Health officials said that the number fell 5.6 percent from 2010 and a full 24 percent compared to 2005, to 1.7 million people. While the number of patients infected worldwide rose slightly, treatment and early intervention are believed to be steadily bringing down the number of deaths each year.
[Image of HIV lab tests via Shutterstock]