Early, routine HIV testing might help stem the spread of the infection among teenagers, according to researchers.
In a study of more than 1 200 sexually active 15- to 21-year-olds, the researchers found that key HIV risk factors - like having unprotected sex or having a high-risk partner - had no bearing on whether the study participants sought HIV testing over the next three months.
Instead, the single most important factor was whether they had ever been tested before. Those who had, were about three times more likely to seek testing during the study period, the researchers report in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
"These findings were a bit surprising, since we thought teens would be more likely to get an HIV test if they engaged in risky behaviours, such as substance use during sex, or attended an HIV prevention workshop," Dr Larry K. Brown, the senior researcher on the study, said in a statement.
Since a history of HIV testing was so important, the implication is that early, universal testing might encourage more teenagers to get tested as they grow older, according to Brown and his colleagues at the Brown University Medical School in Providence, Rhode Island.
Dramatic effect on infections
Widespread testing of younger adolescents could have a "dramatic effect" on HIV infection rates, the researchers write, given that a significant number of people with HIV are unaware that they are infected - and could be passing it on to others.
The study included 1 222 teenagers and young adults from three US cities who were considered to be at high risk of HIV because they admitted to having unprotected sex. They were randomly assigned to either attend a three-hour HIV-prevention workshop or go on a waiting list; the researchers then tracked their rates of HIV testing over the following three months.
They found that the prevention workshop seemed to make no difference in the odds of participants getting tested for HIV; one quarter in each group said they wered tested during the three-month study period.
Instead, the teenagers' history of HIV testing emerged as the primary factor.
The findings suggest that getting kids into the habit of HIV testing early on may affect their behaviour down the line, according to Brown's team. They suggest that routine testing could be offered not only in doctors' offices, but also in non-traditional settings like schools and community centres.
SOURCE: Journal of Adolescent Health, December 2007. – (Reuters Health)