SCREENING FOR HIV ought to be a routine part of medical care. Each year, about 600 Massachusetts residents become infected with the virus. Unless they are tested, many will be unaware of their condition, spreading the disease to others and missing out on treatment for themselves. Existing state law puts up a speed bump, by demanding a special written consent form before doctors can check for the AIDS virus. A bill before the state Senate would bring the rules for HIV screening closer to those for other routine tests. The change is warranted, yet some AIDS activists are opposing it in overheated terms.
The current law made sense in the early years of the epidemic, when there was no successful treatment for it and medical confidentiality practices were weak. But much has changed, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended since 2006 that the HIV test become more standard, more like screens for blood sugar or cholesterol. In that spirit, the new legislation would require only verbal consent for HIV testing. Doctors would still be required to tell patients of their right to opt out. And the bill recognizes that stigma still exists, and forbids disclosure of test results to anyone except the patient without the patient’s written approval.
While the bill has the support of the heads of many clinics and community health centers serving populations at high risk of HIV infection, including the Fenway Health Center in Boston, some AIDS activists oppose it — most notably the AIDS Action Committee. The group raises the specter that, if the bill passes, patients could be tested without their knowledge. This is false, as is the group’s assertion that the bill “would eliminate any need to get your consent for HIV testing.’’ Because a company that makes anti-HIV drugs is lobbying for the bill, AIDS Action further depicts the measure as an effort by an “out-of-state pharmaceutical giant’’ to “gut critical legal protections for people being tested for HIV.’’
Actually, there’s nothing sinister about this bill. And there’s ample evidence that the current setup — which signals that people should hesitate to be tested — keeps some people from finding out their status. A key indicator of the need for more testing in Massachusetts is that about one-third of those testing positive for HIV become sick with full-blown AIDS within two months. Such a quick descent means that they have already been infected for years, likely transmitting the infection and not benefiting from any treatment themselves.
This is unconscionable. More routine testing will save lives.