HIV detection on demand

Ms. Brown would get her results in just 20 minutes, thanks to one of
two new tests that AIDS workers say have revolutionized testing for

On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration’s Blood Products Advisory
Committee heard testimony on whether to recommend over-the-counter
sales of the rapid test for home use. The agency approved a home
testing kit in 1996, but users have to mail a blood sample to a
laboratory and wait for results by telephone.

Proponents say
rapid testing in the home will reduce the stigma and other obstacles
that prevent many people, including one in four of the nearly one
million Americans who are infected with H.I.V., from getting tested and
starting treatment. Research shows that people who learn they are
infected are less likely to infect others.

Here are the details, note that test is an easy oral swab.  I am not much worried about immediate suicides ("The most emotional responses come from negatives," says the article).  But what are the further ramifications?

1. The test is in the hands of the individual, and the kit presumably does not issue a credible AIDS-free certificate.  So perhaps we return to a greater reliance on trusting the word of the individual — "don’t worry, I tested negative a few weeks ago."  Formal certificates of health might become less expected.

2. Will lovers-to-be ask for an on-the-site test?  There is a stigma attached to asking a partner about his or her status.  It suggests you often sleep with people whose health status you are unsure about; the alternative impression is "of course I’ve never done this before, and I bet you haven’t either.  I’m not used to asking.  HIV, what’s that?"  And how much fun is it to watch a potential partner waiting for the results?  Do you bring little consolation cards in case the test turns out badly?  The resulting unwillingness to pry may further increase the reliance on verbal assurances.  Again, the presence or lack of a certificate — however dated — may provide a clearer focal point and thus greater information and clarity.

3. How often should you test yourself?  Given the signaling point from #2, what should you tell your next partner?  That you test yourself every year?  Every month?  Every day?  Which frequency would you find most reassuring in a potential partner?  Keep in mind the probability of a lie or false result. 

You can spin this one either way.  You might assume that someone who self-tests every day has dangerous habits.  Alternatively, you might assume (at least in pure theory) that the previous partners have been monitoring the test results, and that you don’t need to.  "Hey, if two hundred people have slept with you in the last year, a few of them must have checked you out."  Don’t you usually find the presence of other "customers" reassuring?

4. Say you test yourself after every new partner.  You have a better sense of who infected you, which in turn identifies a greater number of infected agents in advance and also deters self-recognized infectors.  Therefore people will test themselves less often than is socially optimal.  The main benefits from testing may accrue to others, not to yourself.

Hmm…it’s not so simple after all.  But I still believe this test is likely a positive development.  Comments are open…

p.s. We thank Robin Hanson for his guest blogging!


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