National HIV Testing Week is a campaign to promote regular testing among the most-affected population groups in England. This year, the campaign returns with a new strapline, ‘I Test.’
It builds on the concept of the National HIV Prevention Programme’s umbrella campaign, ‘It Starts With Me‘ by positioning testing as something normal, desirable, and that we can all take personal responsibility for.
Regular testing helps to reduce the number of people living with undiagnosed HIV and those diagnosed late.
Testing is the only way to know if you have HIV so that you can stay in control of your health.
Where to get an HIV test
It’s never been easier to get an HIV test and to get a result quickly. You can get a test in person or order tests online, with free and paid-for options. Many tests will provide you with a result in a just a few minutes. You can test in person at:
A sexual health clinic.
An HIV testing centre, including those run by HIV and sexual health community organisations.
A GP/family doctor.
If you test at a sexual health clinic, testing centre or a GP then your test will be free. If you test at a private clinic, you will have to pay. Find a sexual health clinic near you (NHS England) Find a free local HIV test provider (NAM Aidsmap)
You can also test at home by using:
A self-test, which you take yourself and see the result within 15 minutes. This can either be a blood finger-prick or an oral swab test. Always check that the test you are using has a CE mark. This shows that the test meets the required standards, will work properly and will be safe to use.
A self-sampling test, where you take a blood sample yourself and send it off to a lab, which will then contact you with your result a week or so later.
No one will be told the result of your HIV test unless you agree, including your employer, family, partners and immigration authorities. If you do a test with your doctor, your result will go on your GP notes.
How an HIV test works
An HIV test does not detect HIV itself but looks for a protein found in an HIV cell or an antibody made by the body to fight HIV.
HIV tests in the UK are very reliable. They can occasionally produce a positive result which is then found to be negative when tested again. This is called a false positive and is rare, occurring in less than 1 in 1,000 cases.
National testing guidelines set out a 90-day window for HIV self-tests.
Blood tests that you send to a lab and those available at sexual health clinics have a testing window of 45 days.
In practical terms, this means that a self-test tells you what your HIV status was 90 days ago, while a blood test tells you what your status was 45 days ago.
When you should take an HIV test
What testing service you should use and which type of test depends on when you might have been exposed to HIV. Signs of HIV infection don’t show up in the blood right away. It normally happens within four weeks of infection but can be longer.
If you think you might have been exposed to HIV in the last 72 hours (three days), it’s possible to take post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) to help stop an infection from happening. If your risk was recent, your test provider would probably advise you to take a test immediately, followed by a second one a few weeks later. The second test will pick up any infection the first one may have missed.
If your risk was in the last three months, make sure you tell the person testing you, as it may affect the type of test you’re given.
A self-test is not guaranteed to pick up an infection that’s occurred in the previous three months. If you think you’ve been exposed in the last three months, you should get a test in person.
Very occasionally, it can take up to three months for antibodies to appear in the blood, so an HIV-negative result is only totally accurate if three months have passed between the test and the last time a risk was taken. However, a negative result four to eight weeks after taking a risk is a very good sign that HIV infection hasn’t happened.
How often should you test for HIV?
Testing at least once a year for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is good sexual health practice for everyone who is sexually active, even if you know you haven’t put yourself at risk of infection. Depending on how many different sexual partners you have in any year, you might want to consider testing more regularly.
Gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (GBMSM) should get tested routinely for HIV and other STIs - at least annually or every three months if having sex without condoms with new or casual partners.
Black African men and women should have a regular HIV and STI screen if having sex without condoms with new or casual partners. Trans women and trans men who have sex with MSM should test regularly for HIV and other STIs, annually or every three months, if having sex without condoms with new or casual partners.
Why it’s important to test
If you have HIV, finding out means you can start treatment, stay healthy and avoid passing the virus on to anyone else. The sooner you start treatment, the less likely you are to become seriously ill. People who are diagnosed early and get on treatment can expect to live a normal lifespan.
Once you’re on treatment and your viral load is undetectable, you can't pass the virus on to anyone else.
If you wait to test, the virus could do a lot of damage. There is a lot of support available for people who test positive.
Mildmay will promote National HIV Testing Week on social media every day until 12th February.