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Prof Deenan Pillay on The BBC Documentary The Truth About HIV

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“Defeating this awful HIV epidemic requires an understanding of society, as well as individuals, as well as medicine. And without an understanding of all of those, we will never defeat it,” says Director of Africa Health Research Institute and Deputy Director of i-sense, Professor Deenan Pillay.

On the 25 May 2017, BBC One aired The Truth About HIV; a documentary that follows Dr Chris van Tulleken, a researcher from University College London (UCL), as he talks to people living with, diagnosing and treating HIV. The documentary features research by the i-sense EPSRC IRC in Early Warning Sensing Systems for Infectious Diseases.  

While science has come a long way in understanding HIV and antiretroviral drugs mean people can live with the disease, there is still a long way to go.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that more than 36 million people are currently living with HIV. In 2015, an estimated 101,200 people were living with HIV in the UK, and around one in seven (13%) of those people were unaware of their infection.

The Treatment and Prevention (TasP) trial:

During the documentary, Dr van Tullenken met with Professor Pillay to talk about the major Treatment as Prevention (TasP) trail in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, a province hardest hit by HIV.

The trial involved more than 26,000 participants and assessed the impact of home-based HIV testing and immediate treatment for the newly diagnosed on reducing HIV incidence.

Through a real-time digital dashboard developed by i-sense researchers David Concannon, Ed Manley, Steve Gray and Kobus Herbst, the team were able to track the progress of the trial, identify areas where further support was needed and target interventions to improve linkage to care.

“We were able to, in our trial, diagnose 92 per cent of those individuals who are infected,” says Professor Pillay.

Early diagnoses of HIV plays a critical role in access to antiretroviral medication before a person’s immune system is irreversibly damaged.

Professor Pillay says the challenge is getting people into clinics to receive care.

“It’s a tremendous success that we’ve been able to go into people’s homes and convince them to be tested for HIV, but the point of that is that they get onto treatment.”

Unfortunately, less than half (47%) of HIV-infected people in KwaZulu-Natal get into care, which is not enough to reduce the HIV epidemic.

How is technology changing the way we diagnose HIV?

Stigma plays a big part in people not accessing care. Home testing opens up an opportunity for people to self-test in the safety and privacy of their homes.

In the wake of recent legislation to allow HIV home testing in the UK, i-sense is working with local and global partners to widen access to HIV self-testing and developing mobile phone-connected tests to ensure patients are rapidly diagnosed and linked into care pathways.

The i-sense team are collaborating with the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI) and The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) at UCL to harness the power of mobile technologies and link newly diagnoses HIV patients to treatment.