Pharmacies in Rwanda are to make do-it-yourself HIV tests available over the counter amid growing signs that Africa is embracing a life-saving technology that could address the lingering stigma around the virus.
After a successful trial distribution, chemists in the capital Kigali — and eventually elsewhere in the country — will stock the self-screening kits, which yield a result within as little as 20 minutes.
While great progress has been made in combatting the spread of HIV in Africa, many people are still reluctant to walk into voluntary testing centres because they are often so public, especially in rural areas.
The self-testing kits can be used discreetly at home. A swab of the upper and lower gums is taken and placed in a solution. The result, according to the manufacturers of the self-testing kit, OraSure Technologies, the kit has a 99.7 accuracy rate, higher than a do-it-yourself pregnancy test.
Rwandan health ministry officials said that trials indicated the tests would be very popular.
“There is a significant demand, especially among the working and elite class of the population who usually fear making their status known when using the normal health facility testing channels,” one official, Sabin Nsanzimana, was quoted as saying by Rwanda’s New Times newspaper.
A quarter of Rwandan men and nearly a fifth of Rwandan women have never been tested for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Officials statistics show, a figure rising to almost two thirds for both sexes in the high-risk 18 to 24 age group.
While Africans are much more likely to have themselves tested than Europeans, the prevalence of HIV south of the Sahara means that there are a still a dangerous number of undiagnosed HIV positive Africans.
The reluctance to undergo testing at clinics has resulted in the unnecessary deaths of those unaware they were living with HIV, many of whom will also have spread the virus unwittingly.
The self-test kits have been criticised by some who say that those receiving a positive diagnosis at home would not have access to the same counselling and support services available in clinics, prompting fears of suicide.
Despite these concerns, a number of countries in Africa are embracing the kits. A ban on the tests was lifted in South Africa last year. Kenya has introduced the kits, while in Malawi they are given to women at antenatal clinics to pass on to their husbands at home.
Apart from permitting pharmacies to stock the tests, Rwanda said it would begin to distribute 100,000 kits for free to those who could not otherwise afford them.