* CDC pilot starts with 7 pharmacies, to expand to 24
* Aim is to make HIV testing part of routine care
* Walgreens store sees daily interest in tests
By Salimah Ebrahim
WASHINGTON, June 26 U.S. drugstore chain
Walgreen Co and several other pharmacies are offering
free, rapid HIV tests in a small number of stores under a
two-year pilot program to make diagnosing the AIDS virus more
convenient and accessible to Americans.
The pilot program announced on Tuesday by the U.S. Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will use information
gleaned from the testing to develop a nationwide model for
pharmacists and nurse practitioners to detect the virus.
"Our goal is to make HIV testing as routine as a blood
pressure check," said Jonathan Mermin, M.D., director of CDC's
Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention. "This initiative is one example
of how we can make testing routine and help identify the
hundreds of thousands of Americans who are unaware that they are
CDC estimates that 1.1 million Americans have HIV, but
nearly 20 percent of them don't know they are infected. One of
the primary challenges in HIV diagnosis is that people can live
with the infection for years without developing symptoms.
Late diagnosis, and development of the disease to full-blown
AIDS, often means that many have already transmitted the disease
to others and have missed a critical window for receiving
life-extending medical care.
Walgreen's testing sites for the two-year CDC project
include one Washington, D.C. location, along with another store
in Chicago and a clinic in Lithonia, Georgia. In cases where a
test shows a positive result, Walgreen will refer the patient to
a local healthcare provider for further confirmation and care.
The CDC has partnerships with four other pharmacies,
including one in Billings, Montana and another in Oakland,
California, and aims to choose 17 more sites by the end of
summer. It has budgeted $1.2 million for the project.
Early HIV detection may also become even simpler as the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration weighs whether to approve the first
over-the-counter test that can be taken at home. The agency is
due to make its decision on the kit by OraSure Technologies Inc
by July 7.
SEEKING ANSWERS AT THE CORNER DRUGSTORE
At the Walgreens store in Washington DC's Foggy Bottom
neighborhood, the pilot has been operational since May. Manager
Bethany Kuechenmeister said customers have already shown
interest in the testing.
"We've seen about five to 10 people a day, and its been an
even split between men and women, though trending towards the
younger," she said.
Three pharmacists at the store have been trained to
administer the FDA approved rapid-HIV test which takes an oral
swab from the gums or inside cheek. Results are available within
20 minutes. Health experts say the rapid tests are a powerful
first step in HIV diagnosis, but must be followed by blood tests
to confirm a patient's status.
Kuechenmeister said her team was prepared to help customers
seek out care and support when they need it.
"We have some pamphlets and information we hand out and
we're partnered with two clinics in the area and we can also
connect with their primary care physician," she said. "We want
to ensure that the patients don't leave here without information
on what to do if they receive a reactive test."
She said that making the tests available in a neighborhood
drugstore should attract more people who would otherwise avoid
an HIV clinic.
"Because Walgreen's does a variety of testing there is no
stigma basically associated with coming here. You could be
getting a cholesterol test or an HIV test - it's the same clinic
room for all of our testing and immunizations. It's very
Walgreen has been providing free HIV testing for a few days
each year as part of a drive from local health departments and
AIDS organizations. To mark National HIV Testing day this year,
47 Walgreen stores in 20 cities will offer testing from
Wednesday through Friday.