NHS HIV testing rollout helps Londoners get treatment at earlier stage
Over 150 people with HIV not receiving treatment have been found by the NHS in London in just six months, following the roll out of routine testing in Emergency Departments (EDs).
Routine testing for blood borne viruses (HIV, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C) in all EDs across London started in April earlier this year, as part of a £20 million national testing programme targeting the areas with the highest rates of undiagnosed HIV in the country.
In London, there were an estimated 1,600 people living with undiagnosed HIV in 2020, which is a third of all the people in the UK with undiagnosed HIV. Routine opt-out testing in EDs is an effective way to reach people who may not otherwise receive an HIV test.
Latest NHS data shows the programme is already having success across the capital, with 759 newly identified cases of people living with HIV, Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C found between April and September. Of these, 159 people living with HIV in London who were not receiving treatment have been found by the NHS.
Since April 2022, in south west London alone, 81,956 HIV tests were carried out, with 26,962 of these taking place at St. George’s University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.
Sara from Parsons Green, south west London, found out her HIV positive status after being admitted to St George’s Hospital in Tooting with ulcerative colitis. She said:
“I was admitted to hospital in early 2015. They asked if they could do an HIV and hepatitis test. I said yes, not giving it a second thought. A few days later, I was told by my doctor that I had HIV.
“I think that there are still misconceptions around people living with HIV in this country. There are so many women living with HIV, but we don’t always hear about them. The main thing I have realised is that HIV is not selective.
“Early diagnosis is really key to living well and now having been on HIV treatment, I live a full life and am able to enjoy all the things I love”.
Dr Chris Streather, Medical Director for the NHS in London said:
“We are making huge strides in London in tackling HIV and working towards the government’s goal of achieving zero HIV transmission in the country by 2030.
“Routine opt-out testing in EDs allows us to increasingly identify people, often who have no risk factors for HIV, at an early stage of infection. These are people who may have otherwise not been tested through other methods, such as at sexual health clinics, therefore preventing onward transmission and the risk of developing life-threatening AIDS.
“The stigma around HIV is rightly becoming a thing of the past and there are now treatments that mean people can live with no restrictions following a diagnosis.”
With effective preventative medication, Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), people who may be at high-risk of developing HIV can protect themselves against HIV transmission.
Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, which runs London sexual health clinic, 56 Dean Street, prescribed almost half (47.3%) of England’s PrEP in 2021.
Dr David Asboe, Consultant in HIV medicine and sexual health, Chelsea and Westminster Hospital said:
“PrEP is the best weapon we have against HIV, and it is the key to achieving zero HIV transmission.
“We’ve seen HIV diagnoses rise in several groups, and we want to encourage all those at risk to find their nearest sexual health clinic and get on PrEP by visiting our website at getonprep.co.uk. It’s really that simple.”
Professor Jane Anderson, Co-Chair of Fast-Track Cities London said:
“Fast-Track Cities London is proud to support the roll-out of HIV testing in all emergency departments in London. An opt-out approach is the best way to make sure the huge benefits of HIV testing reach as many people as possible.
“An HIV test is the gateway to good health – if someone tests positive there is excellent lifesaving treatment, and a negative test means access to a full range of prevention methods. This is a great step on the road to London being the first city in the world to eliminate HIV all together.”
Anne Aslett, CEO of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, said:
“During its three-year programme piloting opt-out testing with NHS hospitals in South London, the Foundation saw first-hand how this intervention can be a critical part of reaching those who otherwise do not access HIV testing, particularly from vulnerable communities; reducing the fear and stigma of having a test and efficiently linking people to the NHS care they need. It was a privilege to share the outcomes of this work as part of the HIV Commission and HIV Action Plan development and wonderful to see the impact already for people living with HIV, as well as other blood-borne diseases. On World AIDS Day, this work renews hope for ending the epidemic in this country.”
In the UK, 42% of HIV diagnoses are made late at a point when the immune system has already been significantly damaged. Prevention and early identification are key in avoiding ill-health, onward transmission and the onset of AIDS. People with a late diagnosis are eight times more likely to die from the illness.
World Aids Day (1 December 2022) provides the opportunity to reflect on the importance of early HIV diagnosis and the work the NHS is doing to improve access to tests and treatment.