The Health Initiative for Men (HIM) has created a new web resource for gay men to determine whether they should get tested for HIV every three or 12 months.
The What’s Your Number? website includes a quiz to work out how often to test, a risk assessment calculator, the option to sign up for free SMS or email testing reminders, a tool to notify partners about potential STIs by SMS or e-card, and directions to nearby clinics.
“Another amazing part of the site is that you can find the clinic, and when you do, you can comment on that clinic,” says HIM’s senior program manager, Jody Jollimore. “You can rate the gay-friendliness, whether you were dealt with appropriately and if your needs were met; and there really isn’t that system in British Columbia to comment on these clinics.”
YouthCO’s community engagement manager, Michael Reid, says that the new website and the tech-savvy presentation of the information is especially helpful for younger gay men. “It will benefit us because young guys don’t know how often to be tested,” he says. “Many older gay guys may have a routine. They know the science behind it a lot of the time, and young guys are often forgotten in this. They haven’t been told what their risk is and how often they should get tested. But now it’s on the web and very easy to read. There’s a survey and everything.”
Reid says he’s received positive feedback from the community so far. “They say it’s very matter-of-fact and the interactive piece is nice, and to be able to sign up for reminders to be tested is something we’ve not seen before, so that’s definitely helpful.”
Mark Gilbert, of the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), who helped develop the recommendations on how often to test, notes that they are not provincial guidelines and that Canada doesn’t yet have recommendations for how often gay men should get tested.
“This helps to fill that gap,” he says. “There are definitely recommendations in the US and other places. We looked at those as a starting point and looked at BC data to see how it’d apply here. These recommendations are now being adapted and implemented by HIM.”
Gilbert says that the BCCDC and HIM are trying to shift the frequency of testing so that it’s happening more frequently in the community overall. “Partly why there’s a three-month and 12-month test option is that we are really trying to acknowledge that it’s important for men who are, say, sexually active and having unprotected sex with several partners to test more frequently. But for other gay men who may be sexually active but are using condoms consistently, they may not need to test as frequently.”
A 2010 ManCount survey, an HIV surveillance study linked to M-Track, a national monitoring program organized by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), found that one in 40 gay men in Vancouver are HIV-positive but don’t know it. ManCount approached 3,324 men in Vancouver’s gay bars, events, businesses and bathhouses, with 1,139 completing the survey and providing blood samples.
Gilbert emphasizes that ManCount and other surveys show that most gay men are getting HIV tests and many do it quite frequently but that there still remain some gay men who are unaware of their serostatus. “We know that in BC, many when they are diagnosed they are getting that result at a late stage of HIV infection, and that means they’ve been living with HIV and potentially not knowing it for quite some time,” he says. “So part of the rationale to increase frequency is to get diagnoses of HIV earlier in the infection.”
Gilbert notes that people who know they are positive are more likely to be connected with supports and says that population-based surveys show that most men who know they have HIV will take steps to prevent passing the virus on to others.
“There’s also the piece we know that very early on, in the first several months of HIV infection, the likelihood of passing the virus on to others is higher,” he adds. “So, testing more frequently means testing in earlier stages, which gives a prevention benefit to the community.”
In July, when HIM rolled out a series of racy new HIV-awareness ads directed at gay men, Jollimore said the aim was to encourage guys having high-risk sex to test more regularly because “guys are waiting a year or maybe longer to get tested. If they do pick up HIV along the way, and they’re still testing as per their regular routine, they may not know that for as long as a year later.”