November 10, 2010
Cell phone HIV testing could be the new status quo.
If all goes according to plan, users will be able to drop urine or saliva on a microchip, insert the piece into their cell phones and receive a diagnosis in minutes. The new device could revolutionize testing for the above diseases, knocking down barriers to testing and helping to lower the UK's startlingly high rates of STD infections among young people.
Testing for HIV via cell phone would raise a host of questions: What about pre- and post-test counseling? How would a cell phone test affect privacy? Would governments, prisons or schools abuse such a test? How accurate would these tests be -- and would a false or incorrectly taken test lure positive people into acting as if they were negative?
"Learning you have chlamydia is one thing" said Dr. Jonathan Weinstein, who oversees the treatment of hundreds of people with HIV as the medical director at Housing Works' Keith Cylar House. "But getting the news you have HIV can be dangerous, and probably shouldn't come from a cell phone."
It's not that fast HIV tests are dangerous in themselves. For years, rapid antibody tests have allowed users to receive results in as little as 20 minutes. But those are frequently (though certainly not always) administered by a health professional, or at least an individual with some knowledge of the implications of the disease. The danger, according to Ken Fornataro, former executive director of the AIDS Treatment Data Network, is when tests are given with zero counseling. And the ease of a cell phone test could make that the new status quo.
"There needs to be some way and a willingness for health care professionals to educate and support people that are taking the test," Fornataro said. Otherwise, he fears "mayhem, absolute mayhem. I can just imagine people giving themselves computer or cell phone-based tests and then trying to diagnose themselves all over the place."
The good news is that the research team at St. George's University of London has just launched this project, so we still have a while to consider the implications of such a test, and to decide how to intelligently harness it to scale back our own nation's STD rates. In the meantime, we have a lot of work to do: According to the Centers for Disease Control, young people under 30 -- the target audience for this chip -- make up more new HIV infections each year than an other age group in the U.S.
Is this test the answer? Feel free to comment.