The Ontario government has announced that it will fund a massive increase in the number of sites offering anonymous 60-second HIV tests in Ontario from one to 50, including adding new sites in Toronto.
Provincial health minister George Smitherman made the announcement at a press conference on Jun 22 at Toronto’s Hassle Free Clinic. The clinic — which is currently the only site in the country offering the 60-second tests known as a point-of-care test — began offering them in May 2006 as a pilot project. The rapid tests have been used on more than 5,000 people since.
“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,” Hassle Free Clinic coordinator Jane Greer told 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 approximately $350,000 a year. The province currently has 24 anonymous testing sites, although only the Hassle Free offers the 60-second test. Those 24 will soon all offer the new 60-second tests, as will 26 new anonymous testing sites expected to be up and running by the fall.
At the press conference Smitherman told reporters 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 said. “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 confirmation test that shows the presence of antibodies — indicating HIV infection — will require additional blood analysis from a laboratory. Ontario is the first province in Canada to offer the tests, which are as accurate as the older, more time-consuming tests.
The tests will be available at anonymous testing sites, sexually transmitted disease 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; that being guaranteed anonymity may be the only way some people will get tested, especially in smaller communities.
“Let’s say that you are a closeted individual or a bisexual. It might be the healthcare system’s only shot at really getting it right with that individual.”
Frank McGee, the 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.”
In Toronto there are currently seven other anonymous testing sites, in addition to the Hassle-Free Clinic. All of these sites will offer the 60-second tests beginning in the fall. The sites include Anishnawbe Health Toronto and the Bay Centre For Birth Control.
Six new anonymous testing sites offering the point-of-care tests will be opening up in Toronto, at Kensington Midwives, the Lawrence Heights Community Health Centre, the Parkdale Community Health Centre, Planned Parenthood Of Toronto, Sages Femmes Rouge Valley Midwives and Women’s Health In Women’s Hands.
There will also be seven new anonymous testing sites opening in the Ottawa area, in addition to the four currently in operation. New testing sites will also open in communities including 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.