Detecting HIV: Task force sensibly wants doctors to do routine tests

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An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That aphorism is particularly true with regard to the human immunodeficiency virus because, if HIV is caught early and treated properly, it won't develop into the deadly disease AIDS.

The trouble is, too many people who are infected with HIV don't know it. An estimated 1.2 million Americans have HIV and acquired immune deficiency syndrome, but about 25 percent of them are unaware of it.

That gap in knowledge is one of the reasons that HIV continues to spread; people who don't know they are carrying HIV do not get the right battery of medications to prevent it from developing into AIDS, and they may not realize they should be following guidelines for safe sexual practices and the use of needles and syringes.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an independent panel of experts working to improve the health of all Americans, believes the information gap can be closed with widespread screening for HIV. Although there is still a stigma attached to HIV, it does not carry a death sentence as it did before appropriate courses of treatment were developed.

The task force issued draft recommendations that call for physicians to routinely screen everyone aged 15 through 65 for HIV. It also recommends that individuals under 15 and over 65 who have a higher risk of infection also should be tested, and that susceptible patients should undergo periodic testing in addition to the initial screening.

Finally, the panel is encouraging physicians to screen all pregnant women for HIV, because there are three ways infected mothers can transmit the virus to their babies -- during pregnancy, through vaginal delivery and when breast feeding.

The goal is to reduce the incidence of HIV and, subsequently, AIDS, but that can't happen in sufficient numbers unless a wider pool of Americans is being tested -- and properly treated -- for HIV.

The task force's recommendation, which is available for comment until Dec. 17, deserves support from the public and the medical community as another important step in the fight against HIV and AIDS.

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