When we think of the AIDS epidemic, many of us turn to the developing world, overlooking the fact that HIV is very much a problem here in the United States. Every year some 50,000 people in this country are newly diagnosed with HIV, and many of these individuals previously had no idea they were infected with the virus.
To help prevent further spread of the disease, which affects an estimated 1.2 million Americans, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has issued (.pdf) a final recommendation that every adult between 15 and 65 be screened for the virus. Younger adolescents and older adults considered at risk also should be screened, as well as all pregnant women in labor whose HIV status is not known, the task force suggests.
"Treatment for HIV has advanced remarkably, helping people live longer and healthier lives, and reducing HIV transmission," Stanford professor Douglas K. Owens, MD, one of the members of the task force, told me last week. "Treatment is most effective when offered early in the course of HIV disease, typically well before people have symptoms, and screening enables people to learn they have HIV in time to get the full benefit from treatment."
"Screening is especially important because up to quarter of people who have HIV do not know they have it," Owens added.
Studies have shown that people who are infected with the virus are significantly less likely to pass it along if they are receiving ARV treatment, which reduces the amount of virus circulating in the blood. Moreover, people who are infected are more likely to do better - suffering fewer opportunistic infections - if they receive treatment early on, rather than wait until symptoms occur and the disease becomes more advanced. For these reasons, identifying infected individuals through universal screening makes good public health sense.
The task force’s latest recommendation, published in the new issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, is in keeping with the guidelines of the American College of Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Owens talked more about this issue with me last fall, after the task force's draft recommendations were released.
Previously: Stanford expert discusses recommendation for universal HIV screening, Task force issues draft recommendation for universal HIV screening and National HIV screening and testing could be very cost-effective