CDC trying out free rapid HIV tests at drugstores in 24 locations

Posted: June 27, 2012

ATLANTA - Would you go to a drugstore for an AIDS test?

Health officials want to know, and they've set up a pilot program to find out.

The $1.2 million project will offer free rapid HIV tests at pharmacies and in-store clinics in 24 cities and rural communities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday.

Officials are hoping that testing for the AIDS virus will become a routine service at drugstores, like blood pressure checks and flu shots.

"By bringing HIV testing into pharmacies, we believe we can reach more people . . . and reduce the stigma associated with HIV," CDC's Kevin Fenton said in a statement. He oversees the agency's HIV prevention programs.

The test will be supplied by Bethlehem, Pa.-based OraSure Technologies Inc. The $17.50 test is the only government-approved rapid HIV test that uses saliva. (Others use a finger-prick of blood.) The saliva test uses a swab inside the mouth and takes about 20 minutes for a preliminary result. Studies show it is correct 99 percent of the time.

If the test is positive, customers will be referred to a local health department or other health-care providers for a lab blood test to confirm the results, counseling and treatment.

An estimated 1.1 million Americans are infected with HIV, but as many as 20 percent of them don't know they carry the virus, according to the CDC. It can take a decade or more for an infection to cause symptoms and illness.

Since 2006, the CDC has recommended that all Americans age 13 to 64 get tested at least once, not just those considered at highest risk: gay men and intravenous drug users. But fewer than half of adults younger than 65 have been tested, according to the agency's most recent statistics.

An HIV diagnosis used to be a death sentence, but medications now allow those infected to live longer and healthier lives. Those who know they're infected can take steps to prevent spreading it to others.

The CDC program is an effort to train staff at the pharmacies to do the testing themselves, and perhaps make it a permanent service.

At a Walgreens in Washington that is participating in the pilot program, prominent signs advertise the test, but the testing is done in a private room. A customer can very quietly request the test, using a special card - they look like a business card - distributed at nearby locations.

Only three or four customers have gone through with a test in the first few weeks, said Sarah Freedman, manager of the Walgreens store.

"We get a lot of questions," she said. "Usually, they get the information and they go and sit on it and think about it."

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