ISLANDERS from some of Scotland’s most remote communities have been among the first to take advantage of the country’s free HIV home testing kits.
More than 200 of the finger-prick blood tests, which were previously banned in Scotland, have been returned to the Terrence Higgins Trust HIV charity since the service was launched in November.
Residents from the Western Isles, Shetland and Orkney are among those trying the kits, which allow users to test themselves at home and post them off. Results are given over the phone, with support for those with a positive result.
Around 25 per cent of people living with HIV in Scotland remain undiagnosed and experts say people in rural areas have concerns about accessing sexual health services through their GP or local clinics because they might be recognised.
HIV charities say Scots who may previously have avoided being tested now have the opportunity for an earlier diagnosis and better treatment options.
There are an estimated 5,881 people living with HIV in Scotland, and it is the only country in the UK to offer a free home testing kit to anyone regardless of their gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity.
The Fastest Direct postal testing service is available free to anyone with a Scottish postcode and has been funded through the Terrence Higgins Trust Scotland.
Robert McKay, national director of Terrence Higgins Trust Scotland, described the tests as “groundbreaking”.
He said: “We carried out a small-scale pilot in 2013 that showed people living in remote and rural parts of Scotland could benefit from the service. In a lot of these areas there is not a centre that people in the gay scene can gather at or seek support.
“People are not necessarily ‘out’ in these areas. They may live in a place where they feel they can’t live as a man who has sex with men.
“We needed to find more discrete ways of getting testing to these people. We’ve had 208 returns in little over a month, without proper marketing, and to have a national service with universal access to home testing is groundbreaking.”
An early diagnosis was essential, McKay added: “A late diagnosis can make treatment more challenging, and unfortunately people are still dying.”
“We don’t want to scare people, but for the sake of a quick test, for the vast majority of people it’s not a life sentence, it’s a manageable lifelong condition.”
Aidan Collins, head of policy and campaigning at HIV Scotland, welcomed the service. “We are of the opinion that anything that allows people to get tested early is a good thing.
“I think there is definitely still a huge stigma surrounding HIV in Scotland and especially in rural areas – it’s a huge issue and one of the main barriers stopping people from being tested,” he said.
Grant Sugden, chief executive of Waverley Care, which provides care for people living with HIV, said: “In Scotland, around one in five of those who are living with HIV are undiagnosed and so we very much welcome home-sampling as an extension to the range of ways that people can get tested.
“Home-sampling is a great way for people to get tested while maintaining their anonymity, which they feel may be at risk if they attended their local GP or sexual health clinic.”