By Julia Medew. Published by The Age on July 24, 2016.

An HIV test that can be purchased without a prescription could soon be available in Australia, allowing people to privately get a result within 15 minutes.

CEO of Australian company Atomo Diagnostics, John Kelly, said he was hoping Atomo would become the first to sell HIV tests directly to consumers in Australia, so people don’t have to go to clinics and potentially wait days for a result. He said the company was starting a local trial of its product in the next few months so it can submit an application to the Therapeutic Goods Administration for approval to sell it in Australia for an estimated $15-$20. If approved, it could be sold in pharmacies, online, or from clinics with support services available to help people if they get a positive result.

Mr Kelly said a European study of the company’s finger prick test showed it was 99.8 per cent accurate, meaning 1 in 500 infections would not be detected.

HIV advocates and researchers are excited about self-testing because there are thousands of people with HIV in Australia who do not know they have the virus. If people are diagnosed early, treatment can help them control the virus, making them virtually non-infectious.

The Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations says at the end of 2014, an estimated 27,150 people had HIV in Australia, of whom about 3350 were unaware of it. Of the 1081 people diagnosed in 2014, 90 per cent were men.

The group said tests for immune function show 28 per cent of people diagnosed with HIV are diagnosed late, meaning they have been living with HIV for at least four years without being tested.

Associate Professor Rebecca Guy from the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales said a recent study of 362 men at higher risk of getting HIV, showed self tests doubled the frequency of testing in a year. The study called FORTH split the men into two groups. One group received four OraQuickmouth swab HIV self-tests, which involves a swab of the mouth, and the other group was told to attend a clinic or community testing site in line with their usual behaviour.

Men in the control group took an average of two tests during the year and men in the self-testing group, took an average of four.

Associate Professor Guy said the study deliberately recruited about 50 infrequent HIV testers, including some men who had never had a test. The availability of self-testing swabs increased their testing four fold. Three men in the self-testing group tested positive for HIV during the trial and two of those had been infrequent testers. “Self-testing has particular value for people who are at risk of HIV who may not attend clinics as much as they need to or who may not attend clinics at all,” she said at the AIDS 2016 conference in Durban. “Self-testing needs to be considered as another option in addition to the existing ones.”

Higher-risk gay men in Australia who have unprotected sex with men are encouraged to have three to four HIV tests a year. Testing is also recommended in anyone who may be at risk of HIV from not using condoms.

At the moment, people can go to a GP clinic where there may be fees, and test results may take many days. There are some community-led testing sites where men can receive a rapid test within about 10 minutes but they cannot take the test home.

Associate Professor Guy said detecting HIV sooner rather than later meant people could be treated early, with benefits for their health. Also treatment, taken regularly, makes the virus virtually non-infectious. If they modify risk behaviour such as unprotected sex, they can also reduce their chance of passing it on. She said self HIV self-tests were already available direct to consumers in the UK, US and France.

The Victorian AIDS Council and AIDS Council of New South Wales (ACON) both support self-testing.

Julia Medew travelled to the AIDS 2016 conference courtesy of the Doherty Institute.