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International Health Officials Urge Widespread HIV Testing

The World Health Organization and UNAIDS, the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, Wednesday issued new guidance on HIV testing, saying millions of people are infected with the deadly virus but are unaware they have it. As VOA's Jessica Berman reports, the international bodies say health providers should offer to test people instead of waiting for patients to request HIV tests.

In issuing new guidelines, UNAIDS and the WHO said 80 percent of people who are infected with the virus that causes AIDS are unaware of their situation.

An estimated 40 million people throughout the world are living with HIV. More than 60 percent live in Africa.

Kevin De Cock, the director of the HIV/AIDS program at the World Health Organization, says the guidelines are essential if people are to be treated. "We think these new guidelines are extremely important as we struggle to move towards universal access to prevention, treatment, care and support which the countries of the world have committed to," he said.

Instead of waiting for patients at walk-in clinics and hospitals to request HIV tests, Paul De Lay of UNAIDS, says the guidelines urge health care workers to offer HIV tests as a routine part of medical care. "It encourages health care providers to recommend an HIV test to people who show symptoms of illness, or who likely benefit in health terms from an HIV test," he said.

But the officials say under no circumstances should people be coerced into taking a test, nor should one be administered without their consent. The officials say those who test positive must also receive counseling afterward.

In addition to getting AIDS treatment they might ordinarily not receive, De Cock says people who know their HIV status are less likely to spread the infection to others. "There are data from the United States certainly showing safer behavior once people know their HIV infection status. Because the overwhelming majority of HIV-infected people wish to do everything they can to prevent transmission to others," he said.

Experts say it is unclear how the recommendations for HIV testing will be received in cash-strapped nations, particularly in Africa. According to one expert, the health care systems in many countries are in disarray, and many people who are HIV-positive fail to seek care until they are very sick.