Vancouver non-profit offers free HIV self-test kits to increase equitable health care

Interviewees discuss the stigma attached to HIV

Photo courtesy of the Community-Based Research Centre

Written by: Michelle Young, News Editor and Carter Hemion, Staff Writer 

The Community-Based Research Centre (CRBC) now offers up to three free self-test kits for HIV. Gay, bisexual, transgender, queer men, non-binary, and Two-Spirit British Columbians are eligible to recieve these self-test kits by participating in the CBRC’s Sex Now 2021 survey

Approved by Health Canada, the testing kits involve “a one-minute, finger-prick blood test.” 

Chris Draenos, a research manager for the CBRC said the kit “allows them to make the choice of how they want to test, where they want to test, who they want to disclose to, without having to participate in a health-care system where there’s barrier access.” Surveys suggest self-testing is preferred over other methods, such as in-person clinics. 

HIV self-testing was approved in November 2020 in Canada — oral HIV tests are currently unavailable.

Due to clinic closures, over 50% of LGBTQIA2S+ patients have missed appointments related to HIV and STD testing, Draenos said. “Even before COVID-19, there were access issues with HIV testing.”  

“Aside from that, there are structural reasons why people aren’t able to access testing.” He explained this includes lack of government health insurance and discrimination.  

“There’s also a lot of HIV stigma out there still. The criminalization of HIV is a huge barrier to people accessing testing. There’s fear of what might happen afterwards and many of the policies are still rooted in the ‘80s and ‘90s — science has moved on since then,” Draenos said.  

SFU professor and LGBTQIA2S+ health-care expert Travis Salway elaborated that stigma is intersectional. It relates to race, sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration, and sex work. “They all play a role because HIV — historically — hasn’t been evenly distributed throughout our population. Some groups have been more burdened than others. 

“HIV, as a virus, shouldn’t be different from any of the other infectious diseases that we’re contending with in public health — but it took on a particular meaning because the first visible cases were among these groups of people that were disfavoured by society,” Salway explained. 

In comparison to earlier outbreaks, there are now treatments and preventative education available for HIV. 

“But history lingers, so even though we have shifted our understanding of HIV [ . . . ] people still equate HIV with homosexuality and using injection drugs.” Salway added this stigma surrounds HIV and conversations of testing and safe sex. In turn, it can make conversations about HIV difficult — which is “one of many ways” the LGBTQIA2S+ community faces bias.   

Draenos explained that to begin to address HIV stigma, health-care providers should be trained to aid the LGBTQIA2S+ community to understand their experiences. He said this includes understanding the difference between sex and gender expression. 

Salway said sex education plays an important role in addressing stigma surrounding sexual orientation and gender identities. In regards to the self-testing kit, he said that while it signifies progress, “it’s just one step along the way.” The next steps would involve access to at-home health services, affordable medication, and providers who understand their needs. 

“Stigma really thrives on silence,” Salway said. “The antidote becomes talking.”