Celebrities put their name to largest HIV testing project in NHS

Tuesday 26th November 2013

Celebrities, politicians and community groups are backing a unique campaign by Barts Health NHS Trust to complete the biggest-ever hospital-based HIV testing programme.

Between 25 and 29 November 2013, as part of HIV testing week in Europe, all outpatients at the Trust's six hospitals will be offered an HIV test with the aim of testing at least 2,500 outpatients.

It is part of Barts Health's campaign to promote earlier diagnosis and treatment, as well as to help make HIV testing more normal for both patients and for the Trust's non-Sexual Health clinical staff.

Big names supporting the groundbreaking project include London Mayor, Boris Johnson, film-maker David Furnish, singers Annie Lennox and Beverley Knight and MP Jim Fitzpatrick.

Seventy year old Alan, from London, spent 12 months without a diagnosis because it never occurred to any of the clinicians he saw that he should be tested for HIV.

He explained: "I was ill for about a year and throughout that time I was sent from clinic to clinic for various tests to determine what was wrong with me.

"Nobody thought to test me for HIV. When I was finally asked if I was willing to be tested I immediately said 'Yes, by all means, let's get that out of the way'.

"Having been found to be positive at almost seventy years old it was a massive shock but once it had sunk in I did feel somewhat let down that nobody had suggested it before, despite the otherwise wonderful care I had received.

"We need to take away the stigma of being tested for HIV so that it becomes a routine test for people visiting hospital irrespective of their gender, ethnicity or age. That's why this project is so important- to get that message across."

Thousands of patients pass through NHS hospitals every day and yet HIV- testing remains limited to only a few specific areas.

David Furnish said: "Knowing your HIV status is so important for your future health and that of your loved ones. The scale of work being done at Barts Health is ground-breaking and historic in the UK, and will hopefully go a long way towards breaking down the taboos that still exist around HIV. If we can make HIV testing a normal part of looking after your health, we can truly envisage an AIDS-free future in the UK."

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson commented: "More than half the total number of people with HIV in the country live in London and a quarter of them are unaware they are positive. This means they can't get the treatment that will help them to stay healthy and are more likely to pass on the virus.

"I hope the Barts Health scheme will encourage more people to get tested. While we still can't cure HIV, it is not the death sentence it once was - the secret to a long and healthy life is to find out early so you can get the treatment you need."

Singer Beverley Knight, currently starring in The Bodyguard in the West End, has also lent her support to the campaign.

She said: “I am delighted to be supporting Barts Health NHS Trust's aim to test 2,500 outpatients for HIV this week. Early diagnosis can help people to avoid the serious illnesses that can develop when diagnosed late.

"With early and sustained treatment, life expectancy for people with HIV can be increased to near normal and these treatments also protect other people by reducing the risk. As someone who lost a friend to advanced HIV, this is very close to my heart".

Musician Annie Lennox is backing the campaign by tweeting about it, while Poplar and Limehouse MP Jim Fitzpatrick will visit Outpatients at The Royal London on Tuesday 26 November to lend his support.

Charities and support organisations such as Positively UK, Positive East, National Aids Trust and Saving Lives have also backed the initiative with various offers of help as well as volunteers during the week.

Barts Health HIV Consultant and Lead for HIV-Testing, Dr Chloe Orkin, said: "We want to make it normal for staff to offer HIV tests and normal for patients to accept them. If a doctor missed a diabetes or cancer diagnosis people would be very upset. Diagnosing HIV patients late by not testing them is just as serious and we need to change this.

"We are used to seeing health messages all the time in hospitals about stopping smoking, or having a flu-jab. Messages encouraging HIV testing should take an important place amongst them."

HIV testing is one of the most cost-effective health interventions available. It costs around £5 to do an HIV test, around £5000 to keep an HIV positive person well on treatment for a year, but it can cost £500,000 to treat someone who is diagnosed late and needs very costly treatments for many weeks or months in hospital.

Rachel Bath, HIV Testing Nurse Facilitator has recruited and trained more than 100 Barts Health student doctors to work with NHS staff in carrying out the tests and to enthuse people about testing. Barts Health's aim is for the doctors of tomorrow to be articulate and comfortable in discussing HIV from their very first day.

The programme will operate on an opt-out basis in the same way as in antenatal clinics. Every outpatient who is giving blood for routine tests will be given a full explanation of the project and then tested for HIV or given the opportunity to opt out.

Once available, results will be delivered on a 'no news is good news basis' and the HIV Testing Team will make contact with anyone testing positive for HIV and offer them care and effective treatment at one of the Trust's six hospitals.

Barts Health serves a population in east London where people are three times more likely to have HIV than the average elsewhere in the UK.

HIV prevalence is 6 per 100,000 - three times the threshold at which routine screening is recommended in the UK by the British HIV Association (BHIVA) / British Infection Society (BIS) and British Association of Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) 2008 HIV Testing in the UK guidelines. 43% of HIV positive people in London are believed to have acquired the infection heterosexually.

Worryingly, 16% of new diagnoses present in Tower Hamlets with advanced disease. This is similar in Newham and Hackney whose populations also attend our Emergency Department and it is these people particularly whom Barts Health clinicians are particularly keen to pick up.

The November project follows a highly successful smaller pilot project in the Emergency Department at The Royal London Hospital earlier this year. This led to eight new HIV positive individuals being diagnosed in just two months. All are now receiving treatment and care. We worked with those patients to ensure that their untested partners and children were also offered testing.

For further information please contact Angela Boon in the Trust Press Office on 0207 092 5472 or email angela.boon@bartshealth.nhs.uk

About Barts Health
With a turnover of £1.25 billion and a workforce of 15,000, Barts Health is the largest NHS trust in the country, and one of Britain’s leading healthcare providers. The trust’s six hospitals – St Bartholomew’s (Barts) Hospital in the City, The Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, The London Chest Hospital in Bethnal Green, Newham University Hospital in Plaistow, Mile End Hospital and Whipps Cross University Hospital in Leytonstone – deliver high quality compassionate care to the 2.5 million people of east London and beyond.