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U.N. offers new
HIV testing guidance

U.N. offers new
HIV testing guidance

Health professionals should routinely offer to test people for HIV instead of waiting for patients to request it, according to new advice from the United Nations Wednesday.

In making the recommendations, the World Health Organization and UNAIDS are underlining the need to identify the millions worldwide who need treatment. WHO estimates that approximately 80% of HIV-positive people in developing countries are currently unaware of their status.

''If we are serious about ensuring universal access to drugs, there has to be a fundamental change in the approach to HIV testing,'' said Dr. Kevin De Cock, director of WHO's AIDS department.

The U.N. now advises health workers to test patients for HIV as part of standard medical care, but only with the patient's informed consent.

Yet there are questions about how the cash-strapped countries in Africa might adopt these guidelines. Of the estimated 40 million people living worldwide with HIV/AIDS, nearly 65% are in Africa.

Because current estimates of the number of HIV/AIDS patients include people who don't know their status, experts do not expect the numbers to rise dramatically if more people are tested.

Though universal testing will certainly identify more HIV-positive people needing lifesaving antiretrovirals, there is already a long waiting list: Nearly 5 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are still without treatment.

Identifying more AIDS patients whom countries cannot afford to treat threatens to create an even bigger backlog of people who know they are sick but have no access to care.

Most AIDS experts believe that increased HIV testing will help, even if the conditions are not perfect.

''No one wants a situation where people find out they're HIV-positive and can't get antiretroviral treatment,'' said Jennifer Kates, vice president and director of HIV policy for the Kaiser Family Foundation. ''But if we waited until everything was perfectly aligned, we would never respond.''

Another benefit of testing: Past studies also have shown that once people are aware that they are HIV-positive, they tend to practice safer sex, which could give prevention efforts a boost.

Africa's weak health infrastructure, though, is a huge stumbling block. The continent urgently needs at least another 4 million health workers to fill the gap, according to the WHO. Without doctors and nurses to administer the HIV tests or to provide the necessary treatment when patients are identified, such guidance will create even more stress for Africa's already fragile health systems.

Still, the new testing procedures should mean that HIV patients are found earlier.

''The biggest problem we have now is that our health care systems are overburdened with very sick people who come in too late,'' said Zackie Achmat, chairman of South Africa's Treatment Action Campaign.

''These new guidelines are long overdue,'' said Achmat. ''We cannot deal with the burden on the health care service if we don't prevent people from becoming so sick that they become a supreme burden on it,'' he said.

Increased HIV testing and the treatment and infrastructure it ultimately entails will require more money, yet no new funds have been announced to help countries implement these policies.

The U.N. estimates that the fight against AIDS in 2007-2008 will require $22 billion, and there is still a considerable shortfall. Last year the deficit for global AIDS programs was about $6 billion.

While health authorities would like to see the new U.N. recommendations adopted as soon as possible, much will depend on whether countries decide to follow their advice.

''I hope that countries start implementing this immediately,'' said WHO's De Cock. ''But we know you can't just flip the switch and change everything in one day.'' (AP)

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Matthew Van Atta