Two years ago, France reported 6,100 new infections of the HIV/AIDS virus. Any number of new infections would explain yesterday’s Health Ministry announcement that self-testing HIV kits will become commercially available in 2014. Health Minister Marisol Touraine told a parliamentary committee that they are intended “for people who do not want to go to testing centers or hospitals,” as reported by the NY Daily News.

In the U.S., two home sampling kits — in which a person takes the saliva or blood sample at home and then sends it to an approved lab — have been sanctioned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since 1996. The FDA approved the first rapid at-home HIV test kit in July 2012. The OraQuick, which uses a swab sample from the mouth to detect antibodies to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), provides a test result in 20 to 40 minutes and is available to anyone who is 17 or older.

Although this is the first FDA-approved test kit, unapproved home tests have been available at least since 1997 and mostly sold online. One study published in 2012 surveyed French-speaking men who have sex with men (MSM) in order to better understand their access to and use of online HIV self-tests.

Will Self-Testing Catch On?

“Although not authorized in France, HIV self-tests are easily available online,” the authors of the 2012 study wrote in their introduction. To understand self-testing practices, the researchers distributed an online questionnaire via sex websites and gay and HIV community websites.

A total of 9,169 MSM completed the questionnaire. Of these respondents, 2,748 (30 percent) were aware of online self-tests. Only 82 of the MSM who were not already HIV positive (3.5 percent) had accessed a self-test kit and only 69 had used it. Clearly, very few of the MSM who were aware of a home test admitted in their online questionnaire to having used one. Of those who accessed the self-test, a high proportion were living their sex-life in total secrecy or had unprotected anal intercourse in the last 12 months. “Autonomous self-testing may reduce barriers to testing for this vulnerable population," the authors concluded.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates just over 1.1 million people in the U.S. are HIV-positive, while nearly one in five (18.1 percent) don’t know they are infected. Those who are unaware of being infected with the HIV virus are presumed to be more likely to pass it to someone else. Gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (MSM) are most seriously affected by HIV. In France, health officials believe that up to 40,000 people in France may unknowingly be HIV-positive.

Source: Greacen T, Friboulet D, Fugon L, et al. Access to and use of unauthorised online HIV self-tests by internet-using French-speaking men who have sex with men. Sexually Transmitted Infections. 2011.