According to the 2012 UNAIDS Report submitted by 186 countries, between 31.4 million and 35.9 million people carry HIV worldwide and approximately half of HIV sufferers are unaware they have contracted the disease.

Researchers have now confirmed that self-testing for HIV may be the best method for diagnosing it early on, and from preventing the disease from further spread.

A team of experts from the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) identified two different types of strategies for self-testing:

  1. supervised self-testing (when the self-test included counseling and aid from a health-care professional who is physically present)
  2. unsupervised self-testing (done without any help but with counseling available by phone or internet if needed)

The study found that "acceptability" -- a number calculated by taking the total number of people who have actually done the self-test and dividing that by the number of people who consented to the self-test -- was high in both strategies. That's good news, because people much prefer self-testing to testing that takes place in facilities. The study also found that oral self-testing is much preferred to blood self-tests.

"The preference was largely driven by the fact the oral self-tests are non-invasive, convenient, easy to swab and do not involve a finger stick or blood from your arm for a preliminary screen," explains Dr. Nitika Pant Pai, wone of the authors of the study and a clinical researcher at the RI-MUHC and assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at McGill University. "A lot of people also wanted to take the oral self-test home to test their partners."

In other words, the proliferation and availability of HIV self-tests may be helping stop the spread of HIV worldwide. As more people have access to this simple test, the less likely it is that an undiagnosed carier will pass the disease on.

Self-testing for HIV is relatively simple and reduces the patient's chance of being ostracized as carrier of a sexually transmitted disease, STD. Patients just have to provide a sample of oral saliva and the in-home testing kit will give the results in 20 to 40 minutes. Although the original test can be interpreted by the patient, the sample must be sent for a follow up laboratory-based test.

"Thirty years into the HIV epidemic, there is no vaccine in sight. Treatment as a prevention strategy has been known to work, but uptake of HIV screening seems to be limited by a societal problem: HIV stigma and perceived discrimination," says Dr. Pant Pai.

This systematic review of 21 global studies was published in PLoS Medicine.