More HIV tests taken as lab services grow

On Taobao, China's top e-commerce site, rapid test kits for HIV sell for less than US$8 each. The top selling test kit tests blood and fluid from the cheeks and gums.
More HIV tests taken as lab services grow

A vending machine that sells HIV test kits to college student is installed at the campus of Peking University in Beijing.

On Taobao, China’s top e-commerce site, rapid test kits for HIV sell for less than US$8 each.

The top selling test kit, which has monthly sales of about 20,000 units, tests blood and fluid from the cheeks and gums.

“I was extremely nervous until I tested negative,” said an anonymous user. “I secretly bought this. If it was not about AIDS, I wouldn’t have to hide anything.”

The proliferation of these kits points to China’s key focus in its fight against HIV/AIDS — testing.

In the past decade, the number of people in China tested for HIV/AIDS each year had nearly quadrupled, said experts. But it remains a challenge to reach the estimated 200,000 to 400,000 people who are unaware that they have HIV.

The number of HIV test takers reached 169 million last year, and it continued to grow, said Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC).

“It means one in every three people taking the HIV test in the world has it done in China,” he said ahead of the World AIDS Day tomorrow.

In 2008, 45 million people in China took the test, said Wu. 

The number of people who took the test has been rising steadily as China builds an extensive network for HIV tests. Most people take the test before having major surgery, blood donation, or pregnancy.

The current testing rate — more than 12 percent of China’s population — was considered the highest volume in the world, Wu said.

China’s efforts on fighting the AIDS epidemic have yielded results. Blood transmission of the virus — once rampant through illegal blood sales or sharing of needles among drug users — has been halted. Transmission of the virus from mother to child has been almost fully eliminated.

According to official data, China has about 718,270 people living with HIV/AIDS. As of June 30, 221,628 people had died of AIDS-related diseases. 

In the second quarter of this year, 36,886 new cases were reported. 

“People often confuse ‘newly reported cases’ with ‘new infections.’ Newly reported cases are mostly infections in the past few years,” said Wu, who attributed the growth in new cases in the past decade to the success of the fast-growing network for HIV/AIDS tests.

China has one of the world’s most extensive networks for such tests, with more than 30,000 laboratories whose services extend to nearly every county in the nation, according to Jiang Yan, director of the National HIV/HCV Reference Laboratory of the China CDC.

“But certain high-risk people remain out of reach,” she said.

Young gay men feature prominently among the new cases. While some had been tested through peer group programs, shy first-timers were likely to avoid the test after high-risk activities, said experts.

Jiang said the use of a urine self-collection kit was now viewed as a solution. Vending machines that sell one type of these test kits have been installed at more than 30 universities in Beijing and four provincial-level areas.

A user can buy a kit, collect his urine and leave the sample in the the vending machine’s deposit drawer. Volunteers will collect such samples and have them tested in an authorized laboratory. Test takers can check their result online or through a mobile application. The entire process is anonymous.

Jiang said school administrators and students had welcomed the testing method. “Before, HIV blood tests were available in school clinics, but the turnout was poor,” Jiang said. “No one wants to show up at the school clinic and ask for an HIV test.”

She said the program would expand to more regions next year.

Wu expects rapid testing kits to become mainstream in the future. 

He said it was essential for people with high risk of being infected to know their health status so that they could be treated earlier.

“Modern medicine is able to keep viral loads in the body low so that the patient poses little threat of infecting others. A person with HIV/AIDS can also reach the average life expectancy if he stays on medication.” Wu said. “But the crucial first step is to find out the status.”

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