Research program to distribute 50,000 free HIV self-testing kits across Canada
Dr. Sean B. Rourke
By Jennifer Stranges
TORONTO – A new research program is distributing 50,000 free HIV self-testing kits across Canada to reach people who are undiagnosed and get them connected to care, with the goal of identifying factors that affect access to testing and care and ultimately, ending Canada’s HIV epidemic.
The I’m Ready research program, which launches June 2 with an online event featuring Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam, is accessible through a website and mobile app, which users can access anonymously. Participants will receive an HIV self-testing kit – which is proven to be fast and highly effective – and have access to a telehealth-style peer navigation service to link them to more information about prevention and care.
Researchers will evaluate in real-time how well the program is able to reach and support people in accessing testing, care and treatment. They will use this information to adapt the program to ensure there are low-barrier options for access to testing. An estimated 8,000 Canadians live with HIV and are unaware of their status. HIV disproportionately impacts men who have sex with men, African, Caribbean and other Black people, Indigenous Peoples and people who use and inject drugs.
“We have come so far in the global fight against HIV/AIDS and we now have all the tools that we need to end HIV,” said Dr. Sean B. Rourke, the study’s principal investigator and a scientist at the MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions.
“Our program uses technology to reach and serve people who are marginalized because of systemic racism, residential schools and the legacy of ongoing colonization, and stigma and discrimination in various forms – including gender-based and against LGBTQ2+ communities. We designed I’m Ready to create access and choice for testing and care in ways that can work for these populations in their communities.”
The program will also collect data about participants’ experiences with testing and care, behaviours, risk level and socio-demographic information to increase knowledge of HIV self-testing and connecting to care.
I’m Ready launches just over six months after Health Canada approved the country’s first HIV self-test. The results from a cross-Canada clinical trial led by REACH Nexus at the MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions of St. Michael’s Hospital was the last step needed for the review and approval.
To participate in the program, participants will need an iOS or Android smart phone to download the I’m Ready, Test mobile app. Through the app, participants will be asked to create a profile and answer a pre-test survey. Participants can choose to have up to three self-test kits delivered to their home or another address, or opt to pick up kits at any one of 75 pickup locations across the country. Up to three kits are provided so participants have access to test kits if they have additional exposures, should they test within a window period where the virus isn’t yet detectable, or can distribute a kit to friends, family members and sexual partners.
Once a participant has their self-test kit, they will follow the steps in the app and use the test kit’s instructions to take the self-test. Once complete, they will anonymously record their results in the app and receive access to more information about treating or preventing HIV.
At any time before, during or after the test, participants can book a free, confidential appointment with a peer navigator through the program’s I’m Ready, Talk secure telehealth service. The peer navigator will guide participants through the testing process and provide information and services for HIV care and prevention. I’m Ready, Talk is available in partnership with Women’s Health in Women’s Hands (WHIWH) and the Community-Based Research Centre (CBRC).
“The I’m Ready research program meaningfully engages communities disproportionately affected by HIV through use of peers who are the core of the support provided for those seeking testing. Utilizing peers in the I’m Ready HIV self-testing program will provide tailored expertise and leadership from communities highly affected by HIV,” said Wangari Tharao, Director of Research and Programs at WHIWH.
The I’m Ready research program is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation and the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR)’s Strategic Initiatives, and it launches in collaboration with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Black, African & Caribbean Network (CHABAC), Women’s Health in Women’s Hands (WHIWH) and the Community-Based Research Centre (CBRC), among other community partners across Canada.
Self-testing is seen as a critical tool in HIV prevention because it allows people to safely learn their status in the privacy of their own home and seek out care or prevention as needed. In Canada, an estimated 65,000 people live with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and 13 per cent of those are unaware of their status.
To do the test, a person pricks their finger, takes a single drop of blood with the materials provided in the kit, follows the simple procedure instructions provided in the package, and reads their results. The process can take as little as one minute.
“Ending the HIV epidemic in Canada is possible – but only if we can connect the 8,300 people living with HIV who are unaware of their status and the 7,840 people diagnosed with HIV – and get everyone access to life-saving treatments,” said Dr. Rourke. “Every Canadian should have access, choice and support for HIV testing and care regardless of who they are or where they live.”
About St. Michael’s Hospital
St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in more than 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the Hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael’s Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.
About Unity Health Toronto
Unity Health Toronto, comprised of Providence Healthcare, St. Joseph’s Health Centre and St. Michael’s Hospital, works to advance the health of everyone in our urban communities and beyond. Our health network serves patients, residents and clients across the full spectrum of care, spanning primary care, secondary community care, tertiary and quaternary care services to post-acute through rehabilitation, palliative care and long-term care, while investing in world-class research and education. For more information, visit www.unityhealth.to.
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