An Ottawa pharmacy is now offering instant testing for HIV. The Shoppers Drug Mart at the corner of Bank Street and Gladstone Avenue is offering the free blood screening on Mondays between 5 and 9 p.m. Results are available within seconds, and it’s available to all residents of Ontario and Quebec.
“You don’t need a valid health card because [for] some people, that’s a gap in treatment if they don’t have a health card or they’re a newcomer,” said the pharmacy’s owner, Ben Gunter. “There’s no real restrictions for coming in.”Ben Gunter
The pharmacy is only the second in Ontario to offer the rapid test as part of a six-month pilot project in collaboration with the Ontario HIV Treatment Network. The first one opened in Toronto in December.
Two pharmacists at the Ottawa location have received special training to conduct the tests, including pre- and post-test counselling.
Gunter said a positive test result is no longer the death sentence it once was, but noted early detection is vital.
“Patients that are diagnosed with HIV but treated early live long, healthy lives, and most importantly, they reduce the risk of transmission to others,” he said. “They obtain zero viral load really quickly, and this is the best possible defence, because people with undetectable viral load cannot transmit the virus.”
50-70 new cases per year
There are between 50 and 70 new HIV cases in Ottawa each year, according to Ottawa Public Health.
HIV testing is available through family physicians, sexual health clinics and various organizations that support the LGBT community, but Gunter said pharmacies are a good option for many patients because of their easy accessibility.
Before the test, the pharmacist will offer information about the virus and the testing procedure. The pharmacist will also request emergency contact information to provide support and care for patients who receive a positive result.
Any positive tests must be validated by The Ottawa Hospital, where patients are referred to specialists.
Dr. Rémi Champlain, a family doctor specializing in sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections, said early diagnosis can allow patients to access to the latest medications, which are often now consolidated in a single pill.
“These medications will not make you sick anymore. The new ones have no toxic effects and the side-effects, either there’s none or they’re very mild, so you’ll be able to continue working and have a pretty much normal life,” he said.
Champlain said between 10 and 15 per cent of people who have HIV don’t know it.
“There’s often no symptoms … [but] they’re still transmitting even though they feel fine,” he said. “But slowly, silently, the virus is completely damaging and bringing their immune system very low, and when they get sick, often they get very sick.”