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Routine HIV testing to be introduced at Vancouver hospitals

Hospitals across Vancouver will begin routine HIV testing of all patients beginning next month.

The pilot project, launched jointly by Vancouver Coastal Health and Providence Health Care, will introduce HIV screening as part of the typical battery of procedures offered to all patients admitted to participating hospitals.

"This is going to test a population that we haven't tested before, " says Dr. Patricia Daly, Chief Medical Health Officer and Vice President of Vancouver Coastal Health.

Typically, HIV tests are administered only to groups with "known high-risk factors" -- namely intravenous drug users and those who engage in unprotected, or otherwise "risky," sexual activity.

But according to Daly, this targeted approach to screening is ineffective because both doctors and patients may feel uncomfortable talking about risk factors.

In addition, under such a selective testing regime, infected adults not considered to be high risk may simply fall through the cracks.

Daly estimates that some 3,500 people, or 25 per-cent of all HIV-positive adults throughout the province, are unaware that they are infected. With HIV infection rates plateauing after years of steady decline across both B.C. and Canada, Daly says new efforts are needed to target the spread of the disease.

On a broader level, says Daly, she hopes the program will change attitudes about HIV and HIV screening.

"We want to normalize testing so that it becomes a healthy part of what people do to maintain their health."

The municipal pilot is part of the province-wide STOP HIV/AIDS program, a $48 million program funded by the Ministry of Health to combat the spread and expand the treatment of HIV and AIDS in B.C.

The policy will be introduced at St. Paul's and Mount Saint Joseph hospitals on October 3. Vancouver General will follow in November, with UBC hospital introducing a routine screening program early next year.

The program will expire in March, 2013, at which point it will be re-evaluated.

Ben Christopher reports for The Tyee.

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