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MUN Researchers Studying Improved HIV Testing

When Deborah Kelly was a student at Memorial University’s school of pharmacy in the 1990s, she was very much aware of the stigma and fear linked to HIV and AIDS in the province.

“It was still sort of viewed as a death sentence in those days,” said Kelly, who is now an associate professor in the pharmacy program.

Kelly is part of team looking to research a new way to administer HIV tests in Newfoundland and Labrador and is set to co-chair a national HIV research conference that will soon be held in St. John’s for the first time.

Even as she was clewing up her undergraduate studies at MUN, the outlook for HIV patients was improving.

Drugs that were able to save the lives of those who previously would have died from HIV were just starting to become available in the mid-1990s.

“The scientific part of it was quite intriguing as a pharmacist, but also the people side of it — that’s what really drew me in,” said Kelly.

Now with fellow principal investigator Dr. Shabnam Asghari from MUN’s faculty of medicine and co-investigators with Eastern Health, MUN’s pharmacy and medical schools, and the education and psychology departments, Kelly is hoping to launch a study that will examine the feasibility of providing rapid or point-of-care testing for HIV in the province.

In December 2011, Kelly was part of a Canadian Institute of Health Research Café scientifique public engagement event devoted to AIDS and HIV.

Two interesting issues were brought up during the question-and-answer session.

The lack of anonymous HIV testing options in the province was discussed. Such testing allows a person to be checked without the health-care provider knowing that person’s identity and results are not recorded on the subject’s health-care record. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, studies have found anonymous testing may increase the likelihood that people will get tested for HIV.

Point-of-care testing was also discussed. Currently, people can only get tested for HIV through traditional routes such as family doctors, hospitals, sexual health clinics or an HIV/AIDS clinic. Point-of-care testing would allow such services to be offered through community pharmacies and the AIDS Committee of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Safe Works Access Program (which handles a needle distribution service and provides harm-reduction education).

“There were a number of people who were at that event that just started contacting one another through email who were interested in pursuing this idea of point-of-care testing in the province.”

According to Kelly, the likely beneficiaries of community-based testing are people who otherwise encounter barriers to health care. They may not have a family doctor or lack the transportation needed to access a facility that administers HIV testing.

“What we’re trying to do is overcome some of those barriers and make testing more accessible to the public,” said Kelly.

The study would also look to offer anonymous testing and examine whether the option of getting an anonymous test affects a person’s decision to get tested.

Community-based testing is carried out all over North America. While many groups in Ontario that handle harm-reduction education also offer HIV testing, Kelly said the option of using community pharmacies for testing has not been previously researched to any great extent.

Those offering the test would be trained to provide pre- and post-test counselling and to educate people about reducing the risk of infection. Aside from offering HIV testing, community sites would also handle testing for hepatitis C and B. Kelly said those forms of hepatitis can share common routes of transmission with HIV.

Proposals were recently submitted to national funding agents for health research. Kelly said competition for funding over the last 10 years has increased dramatically.

In May, Kelly and MUN medicine professor Michael Grant will co-chair the Canadian Association for HIV Research’s annual conference. The conference has never been held in St. John’s, and Kelly expects the event will attract anywhere from 600-800 attendees.

“We’re very excited to be hosting it for the first time out here,” she said, noting Grant is the chair-elect for the association and is set to become its next president.