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Nationwide free testing for HIV patients
Naveen S Garewal
Tribune News Service

Chandigarh, January 4
There is welcome news for persons who have been tested HIV positive.

The National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) has yielded to persistent pressure from HIV/AIDS NGOs and announced free testing (CD-4 count that determines the immunity level in an HIV positive person) for all patients.

In October last year NACO had halved the cost of the test, but it still costs Rs 250 each time a person is tested prior to starting Anti-Retroviral Treatment (ART). The only exception was persons living below the poverty line and having yellow cards.

According to an intimation received by the State AIDS Control Societies of Chandigarh, Punjab and Haryana, henceforth the test will be conducted free of cost for every HIV positive person once every six months. It will be repeated free earlier than six months if the patient has a doctor’s prescription. Though this decision was taken on December 28, it was intimated today.

Confirming that the Chandigarh State AIDS Control Society had received the letter, its Director, Dr Sonia Trikha Khullar, said: “Yes, we have received the letter. It is a very positive development that will help in early diagnosis and treatment, thereby helping reduce mortality”.

Sources in NACO say all ART centres in the country have been informed about the decision that comes into force with immediate effect. “We have asked the centre heads to make CD-4 testing free for all patients once in six months and even repeat the test before that period if so desired by the physician. However, patients without a prescription, insisting on repeat CD-4 testing before six months, will have to pay Rs 250.”

CD-4 testing is done periodically on HIV positive persons to determine when their body immunity falls below a certain level. In healthy individuals the CD-4 count in blood is in the range of 500 to 1,500 cells per cubic millimetre. But in the case of HIV infected persons it drops as HIV progresses. ART, is however, not started till the CD-4 count drop to the 200-250 level.

With the NACO decision, nearly 5 million people in India will benefit. In northern India, CD-4 testing is done in Chandigarh, Amritsar, Jalandhar and Rohtak.

The sources said that NACO had also decided to conduct a survey to determine the extent of use of third- line drugs by private clinics in the country. These drugs are cheaper, but make HIV patients resistant to other more suitable drugs. NACO only prescribes the first line of treatment as yet.

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