UNIVERSAL HIV-testing should be introduced to combat the stigma which surrounds the virus, a cross-party group of AMs will recommend today.
They believe that if HIV screening was routinely offered, awareness of the virus would improve among people who do not think they are at risk and more cases would be detected.
The recommendation follows an investigation by the National Assembly’s Equality of Opportunity Committee into discrimination against patients with HIV.
Today’s report recommends better training for healthcare professionals, along with a public awareness campaign to dispel enduring myths associated with the virus.
The AMs are convinced wider screening would be “hugely beneficial” and urge the Assembly Government to “encourage local health boards to identify options for routinely offering HIV screening, such as through antenatal screening, and roll out scheme throughout Wales”.
Labour committee chair Ann Jones said: “It is unacceptable that any person living with HIV should encounter discrimination by healthcare providers and although some improvements have been made, there is still work to be done.
“A key point that this inquiry has highlighted is that there are differences in opinion about whether discriminatory behaviours are the result of a lack of knowledge and experience, or a reflection of discriminatory or prejudicial attitudes.”
The latest research shows that as of the end of December 2008 there were 1,600 individuals in Wales diagnosed with HIV infection. In 2007, 1,009 Welsh residents were receiving treatment for HIV/AIDS – the equivalent of 34 people in every 100,000.
There is concern that infection rates are rising. There were 192 new cases of HIV infection in Wales in 2007 – up from 154 in the previous year and the highest number of new cases in Wales since the start of the epidemic..
Of the 77,400 people who were understood to be living with HIV in the UK in 2007, it is thought that 28% are undiagnosed and unaware they have the virus.
Health experts are convinced the stigma which is still attached to the virus is stopping people getting the treatment they need.
Dr Olwen Williams, an expert in sexual health and a member of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Wales committee, told the AMs: “We know that people do not come forward for HIV testing as a result of the fear of being stigmatised. There is also the risk to the unborn babies of mothers who decline to be tested.”
Many women are already taking up the offer made to all pregnant mothers by the Royal College of Midwives for an HIV test.
The committee wants screening extended because “offering HIV tests universally would also avoid high risk groups from feeling that they were being targeted”.
The charity Body Positive described the type of behaviour people carrying the virus have experienced.
“What often happens is that people are discriminated against in a subtle way, being put at the end of the list for dentists’ appointments, not being added to the list at all, and having their appointments cancelled at the last moment,” it said.
“People are asked by GPs how they contracted HIV, when that would not be asked of any other illness.”
AIDS Trust Cymru said that many GPs referred patients to their HIV specialist for treatment of minor ailments which they could normally treat themselves.
Dr Williams also said she had seen HIV patients placed in side rooms and infection control equipment being used despite there being no risk of cross infection.
Representatives of Welsh NHS organisations said they had received no or very few formal complaints.
The AMs believe patients may be reluctant to complain against medical professionals for fear of future recriminations.
Dr Tony Calland of the British Medical Association, told the committee doctors might need better awareness about HIV.
The BMA also stated that clinicians “approach all patients using the same universal cross-contamination prevention measures, across the board”.
The AMs’ report recommends that the Assembly Government put arrangements in place with local health boards to allow all GP and dental practices to be able to contact a HIV specialist by email or telephone to discuss treatment prior to issuing a prescription. This would allow patients to receive appropriate medication without the GP having to consult their specialist, it says.