The Ontario government will fund 50 sites offering anonymous 60-second HIV tests in the province, including establishing new sites in Ottawa.
Provincial health minister George Smitherman made the announcement at a Jun 22 press conference at Toronto’s Hassle Free Clinic on Church St. The clinic — which is the only site in Canada offering the 60-second tests, known as point-of-care tests — began offering them in May 2006 as a pilot project. More than 5,000 people have used the test at Hassle Free.
“Client response has been overwhelmingly positive, with over 90 percent of patients choosing rapid testing and expressing high satisfaction with the process and the technology,” clinic coordinator Jane Greer said at the press conference. “This is a huge step forward in our ongoing response to HIV-AIDS in Ontario.”
The cost of maintaining the 50 sites is expected to be about $350,000 a year. The province now has 24 anonymous testing sites, including four in Ottawa, although only the Hassle Free offers the 60-second test. Those 24 will all offer the new tests by the fall, as will 26 new anonymous testing sites expected to be up and running by then. Seven new sites will be established in the Ottawa area.
Smitherman said at the press conference that he has personally taken the old test, and remembers how hard it was to wait for the results.
“I’m a gay man, and I’m one of those that has experienced that gut-wrenching three-week wait,” he says. “Everybody remembers that wait, and accordingly, you can’t put a price on it.”
The entire point-of-care test process, which involves taking a drop of blood for the 60-second test, along with pre- and post-test counselling, takes about 20 minutes. A test that shows the presence of antibodies — indicating HIV infection — will require additional blood analysis from a laboratory to definitively confirm a positive HIV test result. Ontario is the first province in Canada to offer the tests, which are as accurate as older, more time-consuming versions.
The tests will be available at anonymous testing sites, STI clinics and community health centres across the province, including new sites in northern and rural Ontario — but not through family doctors. Smitherman says that’s a deliberate choice, as being guaranteed anonymity may be the only way some people will get tested, especially in small communities.
“Let’s say that you are a closeted individual, or a bisexual. It might be the health-care system’s only shot at really getting it right with that individual.”
Frank McGee, coordinator of the province’s AIDS Bureau, told the press conference that the new anonymous tests are especially aimed at those who may be HIV-positive but don’t know they’ve been infected. Federal health statistics estimate that 30 percent of people who are HIV positive are unaware of their status — a number that could include up to 15,000 Canadians.
“We understand people may fear knowing the results,” McGee says. “But getting tested will help alleviate the anxiety and will make a difference in the effectiveness of treatment.”
Ottawa has four anonymous testing sites. All of these sites will offer the 60-second tests. The sites are the Centretown Community Health Centre at Bank and Cooper streets, the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, the Somerset West Community Health Centre, and the Sexual Health Clinic in the Market.
The seven new anonymous testing sites will be at the Carlington Community And Health Services, Équipe De Santé Familiale Communautaire De L’est D’Ottawa, Ottawa Inner City Health, Ottawa Valley Midwives in Carleton Place, Pinecrest-Queensway Health And Community Services, South-East Ottawa Community Health Centre and the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health.
There will also be six new anonymous testing sites opening in the Toronto area, in addition to the eight now in operation. New testing sites will also open in such communities as Kenora, Keewatin, Timmins, Leamington and Chatham.
Routine testing, which includes the collection of information about a person’s identity, will still be available in the province for those who wish it. HIV testing in Ontario is only mandatory if donating blood, semen or an organ.