Is a dental surgery good for HIV testing?

Where is the best frontline for rapid HIV testing?
Where is the best frontline for rapid HIV testing?

With the rate of new HIV diagnoses on the rise and an estimated 6000 to 10,000 Australians being unaware of their HIV-positive status, new measures for testing and early diagnosis are being put in place. With dental practices presenting unique opportunities for implementing routine rapid HIV testing, the connection between the oral swab test and the dental profession is an obvious one.

However, in the US—where it is currently being trialled in prisons and some public dental clinics—it has raised debate. While there has been enthusiasm from a public health perspective, it has also raised questions as to whether the dental practice is an appropriate setting or, indeed, whether the dental profession is willing to accept HIV screening as an additional responsibility.

Dr Anthony Santella and Associate Professor Mark Schifter, who are currently conducting a research study assessing Australian dentists’ knowledge and attitudes to HIV and their willingness to conduct rapid HIV tests, believe the broader public health issue is around disease prevention and the significant role dentists can play in the early detection and treatment of HIV.

“This represents an important opportunity for the dental profession to consider its place in the delivery of health services in Australia,” says A/ Professor Schifter from the Faculty of Dentistry at The University of Sydney.

“In terms of a broader preventative health initiative—and that is the emphasis—I think it [rapid HIV testing] fits really well within the remit of dental practice. I don’t see it as particularly different from screening for oral cancer.”

In Australia, at the end of 2011 an estimated 24, 731 people were living with diagnosed HIV infection; representing an increase of 8.2 per cent from 2010. Until this time, the number of new diagnoses had been relatively stable (around 1000 per year). Dr Santella, a public health scientist and lecturer from Western Sydney Sexual Health Centre, Sydney Medical School, believes this steady rise means Australia needs to take an innovative approach to HIV testing.

“To combat the rise in HIV incidence, you need more novel evidence-based strategies and the rapid test has proven very efficacious in other countries,” he says. “To apply this in a dental setting would provide this opportunity.”

Undeniably, dentists have the strongest professional interest and knowledge of saliva, as well as the oral manifestations of HIV infection. But does this make them the best practitioners to be screening and advising patients about a potentially life-altering and life-threatening disease?

To read more on this important topic, check out the next issue of Bite magazine, where Sarah Hollingworth will talk in depth with dentists at the coalface as well as academic experts.

And to participate in the research study ‘Australian Dentists’ Knowledge and Attitudes to HIV and Willingness to Conduct Rapid HIV Testing 2’, follow this link.


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