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Making HIV tests as common as cholesterol checks: Guideline pushes routine screens for most

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WASHINGTON - There's a new push to make testing for the AIDS virus as common as cholesterol checks.

Americans ages 15 to 64 should get an HIV test at least once — not just people considered at high risk for the virus, an independent panel that sets screening guidelines proposed Monday.

The draft guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force are the latest recommendations that aim to make HIV screening simply a routine part of a check-up, something a doctor can order with as little fuss as a cholesterol test or a mammogram. Since 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has pushed for widespread, routine HIV screening.

Yet not nearly enough people have heeded that call: Of the more than 1.1 million Americans living with HIV, nearly 1 in 5 — almost 240,000 people — don't know it. Not only is their own health at risk without treatment, they could unwittingly be spreading the virus to others.

The updated guidelines will bring this long-simmering issue before doctors and their patients again — emphasizing that public health experts agree on how important it is to test even people who don't think they're at risk, because they could be.

"It allows you to say, 'This is a recommended test that we believe everybody should have. We're not singling you out in any way,'" said task force member Dr. Douglas Owens of Stanford University and the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System.

And if finalized, the task force guidelines could extend the number of people eligible for an HIV screening without a copay in their doctor's office, as part of free preventive care under the Obama administration's health care law. Under the task force's previous guidelines, only people at increased risk for HIV — which includes gay and bisexual men and injecting drug users — were eligible for that no-copay screening.

There are a number of ways to get tested. If you're having blood drawn for other exams, the doctor can merely add HIV to the list, no extra pokes or swabs needed. Today's rapid tests can cost less than $20 and require just rubbing a swab over the gums, with results ready in as little as 20 minutes. Last summer, the government approved a do-it-yourself at-home version that's selling for about $40.

Free testing is available through various community programs around the country, including a CDC pilot program in drugstores in 24 cities and rural sites.

Monday's proposal also recommends:

—Testing people older and younger than 15-64 if they are at increased risk of HIV infection,

—People at very high risk for HIV infection should be tested at least annually.

—It's not clear how often to retest people at somewhat increased risk, but perhaps every three to five years.

—Women should be tested during each pregnancy, something the task force has long recommended.

The draft guidelines are open for public comment through Dec. 17.

Most of the 50,000 new HIV infections in the U.S. every year are among gay and bisexual men, followed by heterosexual black women.

"We are not doing as well in America with HIV testing as we would like," Dr. Jonathan Mermin, CDC's HIV prevention chief, said Monday.

The CDC recommends at least one routine test for everyone ages 13 to 64, starting two years younger than the task force recommended. That small difference aside, CDC data suggests fewer than half of adults under 65 have been tested.

"It can sometimes be awkward to ask your doctor for an HIV test," Mermin said — the reason that making it routine during any health care encounter could help.

But even though nearly three-fourths of gay and bisexual men with undiagnosed HIV had visited some sort of health provider in the previous year, 48 per cent weren't tested for HIV, a recent CDC survey found. Emergency rooms are considered a good spot to catch the undiagnosed, after their illnesses and injuries have been treated, but Mermin said only about 2 per cent of ER patients known to be at increased risk were tested while there.

Mermin calls that "a tragedy. It's a missed opportunity."

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