By systematically reviewing the literature, Nitika Pant Pai and colleagues assess the evidence base for HIV self tests both with and without supervision.
Stigma, discrimination, lack of privacy, and long waiting times partly explain why six out of ten individuals living with HIV do not access facility-based testing. By circumventing these barriers, self-testing offers potential for more people to know their sero-status. Recent approval of an in-home HIV self test in the US has sparked self-testing initiatives, yet data on acceptability, feasibility, and linkages to care are limited. We systematically reviewed evidence on supervised (self-testing and counselling aided by a health care professional) and unsupervised (performed by self-tester with access to phone/internet counselling) self-testing strategies.
Methods and Findings
Seven databases (Medline [via PubMed], Biosis, PsycINFO, Cinahl, African Medicus, LILACS, and EMBASE) and conference abstracts of six major HIV/sexually transmitted infections conferences were searched from 1st January 2000–30th October 2012. 1,221 citations were identified and 21 studies included for review. Seven studies evaluated an unsupervised strategy and 14 evaluated a supervised strategy. For both strategies, data on acceptability (range: 74%–96%), preference (range: 61%–91%), and partner self-testing (range: 80%–97%) were high. A high specificity (range: 99.8%–100%) was observed for both strategies, while a lower sensitivity was reported in the unsupervised (range: 92.9%–100%; one study) versus supervised (range: 97.4%–97.9%; three studies) strategy. Regarding feasibility of linkage to counselling and care, 96% (n = 102/106) of individuals testing positive for HIV stated they would seek post-test counselling (unsupervised strategy, one study). No extreme adverse events were noted. The majority of data (n = 11,019/12,402 individuals, 89%) were from high-income settings and 71% (n = 15/21) of studies were cross-sectional in design, thus limiting our analysis.
Both supervised and unsupervised testing strategies were highly acceptable, preferred, and more likely to result in partner self-testing. However, no studies evaluated post-test linkage with counselling and treatment outcomes and reporting quality was poor. Thus, controlled trials of high quality from diverse settings are warranted to confirm and extend these findings.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
About 34 million people (most living in resource-limited countries) are currently infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and about 2.5 million people become infected with HIV every year. HIV is usually transmitted through unprotected sex with an infected partner. HIV infection is usually diagnosed by looking for antibodies to HIV in blood or saliva. Early during infection, the immune system responds to HIV by beginning to make antibodies that recognize the virus and target it for destruction. “Seroconversion”—the presence of detectable amounts of antibody in the blood or saliva—usually takes 6–12 weeks. Rapid antibody-based tests, which do not require laboratory facilities, can provide a preliminary result about an individual's HIV status from a simple oral swab or finger stick sample within 20 minutes. However preliminary rapid positive results have to be confirmed in a laboratory, which may take a few days or weeks. If positive, HIV infection can be controlled but not cured by taking a daily cocktail of powerful antiretroviral drugs throughout life.
Why Was This Study Done?
To reduce the spread of HIV, it is essential that HIV-positive individuals get tested, change behaviors avoid transmitting the virus to other people by, for example, always using a condom during sex, and if positive get on to treatment that is available worldwide. Treatment also reduces transmission of virus to the partner and controls the virus in the community. However, only half the people currently living with HIV know their HIV status, a state of affairs that increases the possibility of further HIV transmission to their partners and children. HIV positive individuals are diagnosed late with advanced HIV infection that costs health care services. Although health care facility-based HIV testing has been available for decades, people worry about stigma, visibility, and social discrimination. They also dislike the lack of privacy and do not like having to wait for their test results. Self-testing (i.e., self-test conduct and interpretation) might alleviate some of these barriers to testing by allowing individuals to determine their HIV status in the privacy of their home and could, therefore, increase the number of individuals aware of their HIV status. This could possibly reduce transmission and, through seeking linkages to care, bring HIV under control in communities. In some communities and countries, stigma of HIV prevents people from taking action about their HIV status. Indeed, an oral (saliva-based) HIV self-test kit is now available in the US. But how acceptable, feasible, and accurate is self-testing by lay people, and will people who find themselves self-test positive seek counseling and treatment? In this systematic review (a study that uses pre-defined criteria to identify all the research on a given topic), the researchers examine these issues by analyzing data from studies that have evaluated supervised self-testing (self-testing and counseling aided by a health-care professional) and unsupervised self-testing (self-testing performed without any help but with counseling available by phone or internet).
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers identified 21 eligible studies, two-thirds of which evaluated oral self-testing and a third of which evaluated blood-based self-testing. Seven studies evaluated an unsupervised self-testing strategy and 14 evaluated a supervised strategy. Most of the data (89%) came from studies undertaken in high-income settings. The study populations varied from those at high risk of HIV infection to low-risk general populations. Across the studies, acceptability (defined as the number of people who actually self-tested divided by the number who consented to self-test) ranged from 74% to 96%. With both strategies, the specificity of self-testing (the chance of an HIV-negative person receiving a negative test result is true negative) was high but the sensitivity of self-testing (the chance of an HIV-positive person receiving a positive test result is indeed a true positive) was higher for supervised than for unsupervised testing. The researchers also found evidence that people preferred self-testing to facility-based testing and oral self-testing to blood-based self testing and, in one study, 96% of participants who self-tested positive sought post-testing counseling.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings provide new but limited information about the feasibility, acceptability, and accuracy of HIV self-testing. They suggest that it is feasible to implement both supervised and unsupervised self-testing, that both strategies are preferred to facility-based testing, but that the accuracy of self-testing is variable. However, most of the evidence considered by the researchers came from high-income countries and from observational studies of varying quality, and data on whether people self-testing positive sought post-testing counseling (linkage to care) were only available from one evaluation of unsupervised self-testing in the US. Consequently, although these findings suggest that self-testing could engage individuals in finding our their HIV status and thereby help modify behavior thus, reduce HIV transmission in the community, by increasing the proportion of people living with HIV who know their HIV status. The researchers suggested that more data from diverse settings and preferably from controlled randomized trials must be collected before any initiatives for global scale-up of self-testing for HIV infection are implemented.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001414.
Information is available from the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on HIV infection and AIDS
NAM/aidsmap provides basic information about HIV/AIDS and summaries of recent research findings on HIV care and treatment
Information is available from Avert, an international AIDS charity on many aspects of HIV/AIDS, including information on HIV testing, and on HIV transmission and testing (in English and Spanish)
The UK National Health Service Choices website provides information about all aspects of HIV and AIDS; a “behind the headlines” article provides details about the 2012 US approval for an over-the-counter HIV home-use test
The 2012 World AIDS Day Report provides information about the percentage of people living with HIV who are aware of their HIV status in various African countries, as well as up-to-date information about the AIDS epidemic
Patient stories about living with HIV/AIDS are available through Avert; the nonprofit website Healthtalkonline also provides personal stories about living with HIV, including stories about getting a diagnosis