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ANTHC at-home HIV testing program aims to improve awareness, education in the state

Published: Apr. 2, 2021 at 7:00 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Throughout the course of the pandemic, the coronavirus isn’t the only virus that the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium has been trying to address.

Through a new testing program, the consortium is setting its sights on lowering the number of HIV cases in the state while increasing resources and education. The latest data from the state shows that between 1982 and 2019, just under 2,000 positive HIV cases with and without AIDS were reported.

The program is statewide, but has an emphasis on HIV awareness in rural Alaska. The method is by sending at-home mouth swab tests to those who order them online from iknowmine.org.

Laurali Riley, early intervention services senior program manager with ANTHC, explained the process of using them.

“People are going to be automatically receiving a phone call for a nurse case manager for linkage to care follow-up, HIV questions, and also risk reduction counseling,” she said. “If you happen to have a positive result, that nurse is going to be able to walk you through the process to get you into your local clinic site for confirmatory HIV testing and then also be able to hook you up with any other referral management resources you might need.”

Riley clarified that the confirmation test is a blood test.

The testing kits are meant to allow people to know their status in as private a way as possible, but also increase access during the pandemic in rural Alaska where access to medical services has been extremely limited.

On top of getting a positive or negative result in 20 minutes in the privacy of their own home, Bethel Family Clinic Medical Director Debra Cyphert said the patient will also be connected to a network of behavioral health experts to help them with what to do next while being cut off from other resources.

“Our behavioral health team is awesome about being available to have those conversions that are kind of tough to have when you don’t have your mom or dad, or your sisters, or aunts readily available to you like we did before the pandemic,” Cyphert said.

Riley said while the program is rolling out, they are providing additional training specific to HIV education.

“So we would specifically gear training to behavioral health professionals that would be able to address the stigma, the stress, the anxieties and the fears of living with HIV,” Riley said.

The kits should be arriving to Bethel soon, according to ANTHC spokespeople. The plan is to send more of them out to other villages as time goes on.

Bethel Family Clinic Executive Director Don Black said in these kinds of communities, medical privacy can be harder to maintain where people know the people who live around them more. He said when more people know you, it’s harder to get help for something like an STD.

“When you reach out for services, you don’t know who you’re going to be seeing and there’s that concern that areas that are very personal and very private to people - it may not be private,” Black said. “These testing kits allow people to take the test, conduct them in the privacy of their own homes. If they get an adverse result, then they can seek additional care, but they can get to those first stages without having to deal with the stigma.”

There are more hurdles to overcome in rural Alaska than privacy. There could also be connectivity issues, or travel restrictions getting to and from the clinic during the pandemic.

Whatever the problem is, Bethel Family Clinic Operations Director Shadi Rabi said you can give them a call and they will help get a test to anyone who wants one.

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