Don BlanchonIt was once considered a stretch of the imagination to be able to take an HIV test in the privacy of one’s own home and to receive the results almost immediately. Now, those at risk— or who think they may be at risk— will be able to find out their HIV status using an over-the-counter testing kit that gives results in just 20 minutes.

This week the Food and Drug Administration approved a revolutionary new in-home HIV test. Beginning in October, people can buy a simple, oral swab test from their drugstore or online and learn with 99.9 percent accuracy if they’re HIV-free and, with 92 percent accuracy, if they’re HIV positive.

This groundbreaking technology provides an unprecedented opportunity to expand access to HIV testing nationwide and to better reach those 20 percent of people with HIV who don’t know they have the virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who don’t know their HIV status are responsible for up to 70 percent of the 50,000 new infections in this country each year.

But in many parts of the world, the HIV testing problem is even more dire. Globally, more than half of the 34 million people living with HIV don’t know they have it.  A recent national study in Kenya showed that only 16 percent of HIV-positive adults knew that they were infected.  They need easy-to-use, accessible solutions that produce fast results, especially as the fear of stigma often keeps people away from testing clinics. Edwin Cameron, Justice of the Constitutional Court in South Africa who has publicly stated that he has HIV, advocates home testing and says knowing your HIV status “simply ought to be part of your life.”

Expanding access to HIV testing is a key focus of my organization, GBCHealth, a coalition of more than 200 companies engaged in global health, of which OraSure Technologies, Inc., the maker of the OraQuick home-HIV test, is a member. Formerly the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, we were founded in 2001 by the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, with the sole purpose of galvanizing the business fight against the exploding AIDS epidemic.

Companies, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa that experienced deaths, absenteeism and loss of productivity due to astronomical rates of HIV, mounted prevention and education programs for their workers, their families and communities. They offered free HIV testing and access to treatment, which was rarely available via the public sector at the time. And 100 prominent CEOs signed a World AIDS Day 2008 pledge vowing that their companies would not discriminate against workers with HIV, which deters people from getting tested in the first place.

Holbrooke was passionate about HIV testing. “If ever an ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure, this is the case, since HIV lives undetected in people for about eight years before it explodes into full-blown AIDS,” he said in 2007. “[They] unintentionally spread the virus for those eight years -- to their wives, lovers, people with whom they share dirty hypodermic needles, almost anyone.”

The OraQuick test has the potential to dramatically increase the number of people in the United States who know their HIV status. After all, “There are more Walmarts on the streets than clinics,” remarked Randy Mayer, the HIV, STD and Hepatitis Bureau Chief of the Iowa Department of Public Health. The kit will allow those who test positive to take extra precautions to prevent passing the virus on to others and to seek antiretroviral (ARV) treatment as soon as they need it— as recent studies have shown that ARVs can lower the chance of transmission by as much as 96 percent.

In today’s climate of federal HIV funding cuts, we need as many effective tools as possible to reach those most at risk. The home-HIV testing kit from a small company affirms our belief in the power of business to introduce innovative, game-changing products that generate social returns as powerful as their market potential.

This new home HIV test is a giant leap forward toward improving access to testing in the U.S. To get there globally, we call on companies to work with governments and non-profits toward achieving similar groundbreaking progress in meeting the world’s urgent HIV-testing needs. As a UNAIDS report put it, “HIV testing must become simple and as ubiquitous as home-based pregnancy test kits.”