Walgreens and other local drug stores will begin to offer free rapid  HIV testing to impoverished and rural communities in the help to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The CDC estimates that 1.1 million Americans have HIV, but nearly 20 percent of them don’t know they are infected. One of the primary challenges in HIV diagnosis is that people can live with the infection for years without developing symptoms.

The CDC and Walgreens goal is to make getting an HIV test as simple as getting a blood pressure test.

Pharmacists at the stores have been trained to administer the FDA approved rapid-HIV test which takes an oral swab from the gums or inside cheek. Results are available within 20 minutes. Health experts say the rapid tests are a powerful first step in HIV diagnosis, but must be followed by blood tests to confirm a patient’s status.

Early HIV detection may also become even simpler as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration weighs whether to approve the first over-the-counter test that can be taken at home. The agency is due to make its decision on the kit by OraSure Technologies Inc by July 7.

The number of new HIV infections in the U.S. has held steady for 15 years at about 50,000 per year. With no vaccine in sight and an estimated 240,000 HIV carriers unaware of their status.  I think we all can agree that new methods are needed to fight the spread of the virus.



In other news in the fight against HIV/AIDS

By late this summer, the Food and Drug Administration could approve a widely used AIDS drug as the first pill to prevent transmission of HIV, the AIDS virus. The drug, Truvada (pronounced tru-VAH-duh), made by Gilead Sciences of Foster City, Calif., already is commonly used in combination with other drugs to treat patients with HIV infection. If approved for HIV prevention, as an FDA advisory panel recommended in May, it can be prescribed to healthy patients who are at high risk, such as partners of people who have HIV/AIDS and non-monogamous gay and bisexual men.

Gilead Sciences Inc., based in Foster City, Calif., has marketed Truvada since 2004 as a treatment for people who are infected with the virus. The medication is a combination of two older HIV drugs, Emtriva and Viread.

Truvada made headlines in 2010, when government researchers showed it could actually prevent people from contracting HIV when used as a precautionary measure. A three-year study found that daily doses cut the risk of infection in healthy gay and bisexual men by 42 percent, when accompanied by condoms and counseling. Last year another study found that Truvada reduced infection by 75 percent in heterosexual couples in which one partner was infected with HIV and the other was not.

But Truvada’s groundbreaking preventive ability has exposed stark disagreements on prevention among those in the HIV community. While Truvada’s supporters say the drug is an important new option to stop the spread of AIDS, critics worry that the drug could give users a false sense of security and encourage risky behavior.

Groups including the AIDS Healthcare Foundation have asked the FDA to reject the new indication, saying it could reduce use of condoms, the most consistently reliable prevention against HIV.