Chinese universities add HIV test kits to vending machines
Along with chips, instant noodles and soft drinks, students in a growing number of Chinese universities now have the option of also grabbing an HIV test kit to go from their campus vending machine.
Three Shanghai universities have installed machines to offer the self-test kits this month as a part of a pilot project to promote early detection and treatment of HIV/AIDS in a culture where the virus is stigmatised.
The annual number of newly diagnosed HIV cases among teenagers aged 15 to 19 increased more than 150 per cent in China over the past decade.
As a part of the project, universities are selling the kits for a significantly discounted 30 yuan ($6.20), compared with 298 yuan ($61.20) on e-commerce site Taobao.
A major drawcard of the system — in a country where HIV and homosexuality are still taboo subjects — is that students can do the test anonymously by dropping off their urine sample in the vending machine’s return box for testing.
Students can check their results online after three to five working days by entering the serial number on the kit. During the trial period, the $6.20 is then reimbursed after receiving their result.
However, the Chinese Association of STD and HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control warned in a statement on their website that the test was only a “preliminary screening” and could provide a “false-positive result”.
“If the test result is positive, it should be reviewed promptly,” it said.
Universities started offering the self-test kits in 2016 to curb the rising HIV infection rate among students, and the program has since been rolled out to Chinese provinces including Heilongjiang, Sichuan, Yunnan and Guangxi as well as in the capital Beijing last year.
HIV and homosexuality remain taboo subjects in China
Zhongdan Chen, a technical officer from the World Health Organisation’s China office, said the annual rates of new HIV diagnoses among people aged between 15 and 19 years old in China had almost tripled between 2008 and 2017.
“Two critical reasons include weak implementation of national policies to provide sexual education in schools and communities, and limited focus on adolescents and youth-specific interventions as part of the national HIV efforts,” Dr Chen said.
“Many of these students don’t want to visit traditional testing sites such as hospitals and clinics due to fear of discrimination,” he added.
At of the end of 2017, about 758,000 people were reported to be living with HIV in China, Dr Chen says, but added that an estimated 30 per cent of people living with HIV did not know their HIV status.
“Due to stigma and discrimination, among other reasons, uptake of the available HIV testing, prevention and treatment tools and services among key populations has remained far from adequate,” he said.
“Innovations in tools and service delivery approaches are urgently needed to make these services available, accessible, acceptable and of adequate quality, especially for high risk populations.”
He said some other countries, including US, UK, France and Kenya were also scaling up HIV self-testing by enabling access to and regulating HIV test kits through websites, pharmacies, workplaces, and community-based organisations.
A vending machine for HIV tests was installed at a gay sauna in Britain’s southern city of Brighton last year in an attempt to fight the epidemic.
The machine distributes free finger prick self-test kits that also allow the users to collect and check the results anonymously.
Vending machines could be explored in Australia: AFAO
The Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations chief executive Darryl O’Donnell said it was incredibly important that the testing be convenient, particularly for those who needed to test regularly.
“We need to make it as easy and accessible as possible for people to test for HIV — we want people to know their HIV status,” he said.
“Vending machines are certainly an interesting and novel approach, and it’s something that we could definitely explore in Australia, but the task is to make sure that we’ve got the right test that could be dispensed in that way.”
People in Australia could order a HIV self-test online, he added, but it wasn’t something that was widely known and adopted — and sometimes those tests could be expensive.
Mr O’Donnell also noted there were no approved urine tests for HIV in Australia, and testing was still done by blood samples.
“One of the most important things we can do to better respond to HIV is to increase the rate of HIV testing,” Mr O’Donnell said.
“There’s been a lot of effort over recent years to make HIV testing more convenient; we’ve seen the introduction of rapid HIV tests that allow people to obtain a result in about 20 minutes, and there are a lot of services that are now opening up that are community-based or peer-led HIV testing services, particularly for those who need to test regularly.”