As the New York Times reported this week, in an article entitled “Another Use for Rapid Home H.I.V. Test: Screening Sexual Partners,” some in the public health community are exploring the ramifications for a use of the new OraQuick home HIV test that the company has been somewhat coy about: using it to test a new partner before sex, which may be particularly likely in the gay community. On November 5, 2012, the Petrie-Flom Center (in collaboration with Fenway Institute and Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation) will be hosting a great live panel (open to the public) “Advances in HIV Prevention: Legal, Clinical, and Public Health Issues,” focused in part on the OraQuick test and also on Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (Truvada). The event will also be webcast after the fact.
Unfortunately, I’ll be in Malaysia touring hospitals as part of the research on my new book on medical tourism during the event, but I thought I’d use this forum to share some of my thoughts/questions about the use of these tests for partner screening. Here they are in a few different boxes:
The Medicalization of Intimacy: Is there something problematic about intimate sexual conduct becoming a medicalized affair to some extent? We are not all the way to the scene in Gattaca where Uma Thurman plucks a hair from Ethan Hawke to genetically profile him before deciding whether to pursue him romantically, but this use of OraQuick does interpose a medical technology into a sexual relationship. Now there may (more on that below) be public health benefits such that the development is all-things-considered for the best, but is something lost when this happens? Perhaps a separate spheres concern when technology is used to replace trust/intimacy? Or is this overblown? How will this affect the personal lives of individuals with HIV, and is that relevant?
Overreliance and the Effect on other STIs: The Times Article suggests that the designers of the test have made a specific choice as to Type 1 v. Type 2 errors: “It is nearly 100 percent accurate when it indicates that someone is not infected and, in fact, is not. But it is only about 93 percent accurate when it says that someone is not infected and the person actually does have the virus, though the body is not yet producing the antibodies that the test detects.” Will individuals who do partner screening internalize these numbers or will they go right from a negative test to no condom use, not processing the 7% risk the test is incorrect? Moreover, even if correct, will the test lead to (a) internalization of poor sexual health practices (no condoms) that users will carry over to encounters where they do not use the test, and/or (b) the spreading of non-HIV STIs like gonorrhea (the New Yorker recently gave a terrifying account of the rise of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea)? What is the tort liability for the company in one of these situations, if any? If we think some individuals will be bad decision-makers and put themselves at greater risk for non-HIV STIs (not saying the data is there, just asking “what if” or the sake of argument) should that be relevant as to whether such tests should be available/approved? Do the numbers matter? Or is it the case that if even one person might avoid an HIV infection that would outweigh, from a policy perspective, an increase in other STIs of a large size? Those who have followed my writing and blogging on health care rationing can probably guess where I stand on the issue…