Most Singaporeans are still choosing not to be tested for HIV, with more than 80 per cent of in-patients at public hospitals opting out of the screening test last year. But of those who did, 50 found out they were HIV-positive when it could have gone undetected, said Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan at the 7th Singapore Aids Conference yesterday.
This accounts for about 10 per cent of the total number of newly diagnosed cases – 463 – in Singapore last year. In the first 10 months of this year, 373 people tested positive for HIV. The opt-out HIV screening was implemented in the six public hospitals in 2008 for patients aged 21 and above, in a bid to get more Singaporeans tested.
“It will be safer for all if we can raise the take-up rate, and we must try,” said Mr Khaw at the event’s opening at Orchard Hotel. Of the 134,557 in-patients who were eligible for testing last year, 110,421 opted out. All patients warded at public hospitals are offered the test, which costs between $6 and $30, depending on their ward class.
The test results are disclosed only to the patient and doctors. However, if the results are positive, the hospital is required by law to inform the Health Ministry. One reason people refuse testing is their fear of being stigmatised by family and friends if they are found to be HIV-positive, said Mr Khaw, who emphasised that the community needs to break free of such prejudice. He stressed that the current challenge for Singapore is to identify those infected as early as possible.
More than half of new HIV cases are diagnosed only when the infection has reached an advanced stage. If these individuals can be diagnosed earlier, they will be able to begin timely treatment to improve their health outcomes. HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is spread mainly through unprotected sex, the sharing of needles and from mother to baby.
The virus attacks a person’s immune system and, in its late stages, develops into acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or Aids. The Health Ministry has ramped up HIV testing efforts. It expanded the anonymous HIV-testing programme from three to seven clinics in 2008. This has led to a more than 50 per cent increase in the number of anonymous HIV tests. There were 7,762 such anonymous tests carried out in the first 10 months of this year. “If further expansion of clinics can get many more to be tested, I am prepared to do so,” said Mr Khaw.