Malta planning rapid HIV testing as Europe seeks to adopt effective policies

Expert says sexually transmitted infections are increasing at rates reminiscent to the spread observed in the 60s

Health minister Chris Fearne during Tuesday's conference on the HIV epidemic in Europe
Health minister Chris Fearne during Tuesday's conference on the HIV epidemic in Europe

The Maltese health directorate will soon launch a rapid HIV testing procedure which would ensure that patients receive their test results in less than an hour.

Rapid tests are often referred to as point-of-care tests because rather than sending a blood sample to a laboratory, the test can be conducted and the result read in a doctor’s office or a community setting, without specialised laboratory equipment.

The sample taken is usually either finger-prick blood or saliva.

Health Minister Chris Fearne said rapid testing will be made available over the coming year, which would also increase access to testing for all.

Fearne was speaking at a press briefing following a three-day conference on HIV, organised under the auspices of Malta’s presidency of the Council of Europe, and together with the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC).

“Significant advances have been made in HIV treatment and research, however efforts to eradicate the disease, especially in Europe, have proved unsuccessful, with the number of new infections among gay men steadily increasing,” Fearne said.

The minister explained that while new cases of HIV among heterosexual couples has been stable for a while, an increase in new cases of HIV among homosexual men has been observed over the past four to five years in Malta.

In order to address the epidemic on a European level, Fearne said that Europe has set the “90-90-90 targets” to be met by the year 2020, and which are involve three main targets: having 90% of those living with HIV know they are infected; making sure that 90% of them are receiving treatment and ensuring that in 90% of those receiving treatment are no longer carriers.

Andrew Amato Gauci from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control stressed the importance of taking action to stop the spread of sexually transmitted infections which he said were increasing at rates that were reminiscent to the spread observed in the 60s.

Wolfgang Philips, the head of unit for crisis management and preparedness in health at the European Commission, explained how there has been a shift among different risk groups lately across Europe with more efforts needed to reverse the trends in some cases.

“We need more action on the ground. It’s a timely meeting, that can help us work out concrete actions to scale up the fight against AIDS,” he said.

In addition to sexually-active homosexual men, drugs users, specifically those using injection drugs, are also at a higher risk of infection.

It was pointed out that different member states were having varying degrees of success in dealing with HIV among this demographic.

“In many countries, the number of new cases among this group have not been increasing very much, mainly because of these countries adopting effective policies,” he said, adding that in countries where less preventative measures have been taken, the problem is far greater.

He also pointed out that drug users in Europe tend to be diagnosed relatively late, meaning that access to drug testing is limited. This is especially true of Eastern Europe, where only 21% are believed to have access to treatment.