(This story has been posted on The Wall Street Journal Online's Health Blog at http://blogs.wsj.com/health.)
By Timothy W. Martin
Pharmacists and other drugstore staff already conduct tests for high-blood pressure, cholesterol levels and diabetes at in-store clinics.
Now, in a pilot program with federal health officials announced Tuesday, Walgreen Co. and other pharmacies will examine whether they can become a go-to stop for those seeking HIV testing.
So far, seven stores -- including three operated by Walgreen in Chicago, Washington D.C. and Lithonia, Ga. -- are offering the HIV tests for free. Spotting a patient early on with HIV decreases the likelihood the disease will be transmitted to other people and helps get an infected individual on drug treatment and therapy earlier.
By the end of the summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to add 17 more pharmacies to the pilot program, dividing the participating drug stores equally between urban and rural locations.
The CDC estimates 1.1 million people in the U.S. live with HIV, but nearly one in five of those infected is unaware of their condition. Health officials six years ago recommended that all adolescents and adults between the ages of 13 to 64 get tested at least once for HIV.
Testing numbers have risen in recent years. About 45% of Americans aged 18 to 64 in 2009 had reported getting tested for HIV at some point in their lives, according to CDC research, up from the 40% observed in 2006.
The two-year pilot is a test run for how drug stores and community pharmacies across the country could one day offer HIV testing. CDC officials will study the amount of time, resources and cost required.
"We want to get a sense of how cumbersome this process would be and the approximate cost of the service for the pharmacies," Kevin Fenton, a CDC director for the center focusing on HIV/AIDS, tells the Health Blog.
The findings will help health officials establish a model that other pharmacies could follow, says Paul Weidle, the CDC epidemiologist in charge of the project.
Free HIV tests are widely available at local health departments and community organizations. Most people get tested at their doctor's office as part of routine health screens, paying a nominal fee for the test or the visit. Test samples are collected by oral swab or from a blood sample taken by a finger prick device.
Pharmacists or nurse practitioners at the pilot clinics use an oral swab of the gums or inside the cheek. The FDA-approved HIV tests produce results within 20 minutes. If the test comes out as a preliminary positive, the patient will be referred to a local health-care provider for confirmation and care.
The tests are conducted in private rooms. "This is a non-descript type of place. Nobody really knows what you're in there for," said Mike Ellis, Walgreen's vice president of specialty and infusion.
Walgreen has also trained its pharmacists in recent years to take tests for blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes. The pharmacists who can provide counseling about HIV treatments or conduct a test receive about 25 hours of training every year, said Glen Pietrandoni, senior manager of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis at Walgreen.
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(END) Dow Jones Newswires
June 27, 2012 17:56 ET (21:56 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.