Thursday 21 June 2012

Mobile unit draws more to test for HIV

500 people make use of its anonymity and convenience over six months
By Melissa Pang, The Straits Times, 20 Jun 2012

FOR the past six months, a white van has been going from carpark to carpark in Singapore to provide people with an anonymous way of testing for HIV and syphilis.

About 500 people have taken the test since December, and one person tested positive for HIV and another for syphilis, said advocacy group Action for Aids (AfA), which operates the van.

But what is perhaps significant is that about two-thirds of those who took the test are aged between 20 and 39, a demographic that overlaps with the 29-and-below age group whose HIV infection rate has risen sharply in the last seven years.

It is encouraging that the number of people being tested in areas such as Geylang, the red-light district, is growing. 'These days, there are even short lines of people waiting to get tested in Geylang,' an AfA spokesman told The Straits Times.

The growing popularity of the mobile testing service seems to stem from the 'anonymity, convenience, and how quick and easy the testing process is' according to feedback received, the spokesman added.

The test costs $30 and takes about 30 minutes. The van has visited Tanjong Pagar, Orchard Road, Clarke Quay, Beach Road, Hindoo Road, Yishun Ring Road and Aljunied. Once a week, it will be parked in Geylang.

Professor Roy Chan, founder and president of AfA, wants to spread the service to more locations 'to reach out to persons who are at risk of HIV infection but who, for whatever reasons, are afraid to go for testing at clinics'.

HIV testing is offered at public hospitals. A recent study by Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) found that eight in 10 patients refuse to be tested.

AfA said that anyone who tests positive for HIV using the mobile service is urged to go for a more comprehensive blood test at its Anonymous Test Site, located in a clinic run by the Department of Sexually Transmitted Infections Control in Kelantan Lane.

The Anonymous Test Site, which does HIV testing three times a week, saw an average of 560 people each month in the last six months.

Official figures on HIV show a worrying trend among the young.

In the last seven years, the number of young people in Singapore diagnosed with HIV has doubled, according to Health Ministry statistics earlier this month.

Almost 100 people aged 29 and younger tested positive last year, compared with about 50 in 2005. Altogether, 461 people tested positive last year, 20 more than in 2010.

Associate Professor Leo Yee Sin, the head and senior consultant of TTSH's infectious diseases department, finds AfA's mobile testing service a useful and creative way of reaching out to segments of the at-risk population.

But HIV prevention is 'not only all about testing', she said.

'Most importantly, it is about being aware of the risks, and minimising these risks with safer behaviour.' she added.

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