Medical care for HIV has come a long way since the virus was first discovered in the United States in the 1980s. Thankfully, what once seemed like a fatal diagnosis is now a manageable condition with antiretroviral therapy. Additionally, with harm reduction measures like condoms and syringe service programs, most people can avoid contracting or spreading HIV.
However, despite the incredible progress in HIV treatment, the stigma surrounding the condition seems to be stuck in nearly the same place it was 40 years ago. Some communities and groups are more open to discussing status and prevention but many are still reluctant or even scared to hint at the conversation.
These fears surrounding testing for and prevention of conditions like HIV and hepatitis C (HCV) are the main driver of their continued existence. With so many resources and preventive practices available, transmission rates should decline each year. However, they continue to be an ongoing issue, especially among certain parts of the population.
People who inject drugs (PWID) are particularly susceptible to contracting HIV and HCV. Sharing infected needles is the most common way that individuals in this group become infected. Offering HCV and HIV testing in addiction treatment is an important way to limit the continued spread among this at-risk population.
Testing is Critical for Reducing HIV and HCV Rates
About 14 percent (or 1 in 7) of the 1 million people in the United States with HIV do not know they have it. Estimates suggest that individuals with undiagnosed HIV are responsible for about 30 to 40 percent of HIV transmission.1 Additionally, there are almost twice as many people living with HCV in the United States. One study showed that each individual with HCV who injects drugs is likely to infect an estimated 20 more people.2
Someone cannot avoid spreading HCV or HIV if they don’t know they have the condition. This means testing is the first line of defense against both contraction and spread. But when such a substantial number of people have undiagnosed HIV or HCV, it makes controlling the outbreak that much more difficult.
Testing is critical for reducing rates of HIV and HCV infection but people won’t be willing to test as long as the stigma surrounding testing persists. Normalizing HCV and HIV testing in addiction treatment is the first step to addressing the ongoing spread of these conditions among PWID.
Why HCV and HIV Testing in Addiction Treatment is Important
Since injection drug use is closely associated with HIV and HCV, addiction treatment programs have a responsibility to provide testing. HCV or HIV testing in addiction treatment may be the first time that some individuals are directly exposed to the opportunity. If testing is a routine part of the treatment process, this is a helpful step toward normalizing it.
Since many treatment programs promote a comprehensive approach to treatment, this means they should also offer testing as part of their services. So long as HIV and HCV testing remains stigmatized, people will be wary of actively seeking it out. But if it’s introduced as a normal part of the addiction treatment process, people will likely be more willing to participate in testing.
Once someone knows their HIV or HCV status they can also receive the proper treatment for their condition, leading to a healthier, more fulfilling life. Although there is no cure for HIV, individuals with the condition can begin antiretroviral therapy to manage their symptoms. Most cases of HCV, on the other hand, are completely treatable with an 8- to 12-week treatment of antiviral medication.
Addiction treatment programs have the opportunity to reduce the continued spread of HIV and HCV with simple testing measures. They can also connect people under their care with treatment that both manages their conditions and reduces the likelihood that they’ll continue passing it on to others. Neglecting to offer HCV and HIV testing in addiction treatment is a harmful oversight to communities across the country.
Finding Affirming and Supportive Addiction Treatment
Some programs may hesitate to offer treatment because they struggle with stigma themselves. But offering testing is more likely to reduce rates of transmission, not increase them. Programs should take every opportunity to help their clients and HCV and HIV testing in addiction treatment is no exception.
As part of our dedication to doing rehab differently and leading the way in addiction treatment, HIV and HCV testing are a routine part of the Emerge Recovery experience. You cannot make informed choices about your health and well-being without a full picture, and that includes awareness of your status.
If you’re ready to take the first step toward freedom from substance abuse, schedule your no-fee Recovery Activation call now.
1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). Prevention and Treatment of HIV.
2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Viral Hepatitis.