Is HIV Home Testing a Game-Changer? Magic Johnson Thinks So

Updated: May 12, 2021

As the first over-the-counter HIV test becomes available nationwide, here's how it will really affect HIV diagnosis and treatment. Plus, an exclusive interview with Magic Johnson on the problem with the state of the HIV/AIDS fight.

Many were quick to say so when the FDA approved the first over-the-counter test, called OraQuick, this past July. The same exact test that doctors and health care professionals have used since 2004, OraQuick—which uses an oral fluid sample to detect HIV antibodies in as little as 20 minutes—is currently rolling out to more than 30,000 drug and other retail stores nationwide.

But some in the health care community aren’t so sure. Case in point: An interesting paper in this week’s Annals of Internal Medicine, which argues that the test is not a game-changer. “We applaud the FDA’s decision to promote healthy sexual behaviors by making HIV tests more available and convenient,” write authors A. David Paltiel, MD, and Rochelle P. Walensky, MD. “However we doubt that OraQuick will have much effect in either lowering barriers to care or reducing HIV transmission.”

I had the opportunity to learn more about the new test at a luncheon sponsored by its manufacturer, OraSure Technologies, with special guest Magic Johnson, who is working with the company to promote the test and raise awareness for the importance of early detection and treatment of HIV.

After speaking with OraSure CEO Douglas Michels and Magic, my take is this: The OraQuick test is undoubtedly an important milestone in the ability to diagnose HIV in a private home setting and the buzz around its approval and retail store roll-out is a great way to reignite the message of the importance of knowing your HIV status. But would-be test users need to inform themselves about the pros and cons of the test to decide if it’s right for them.

Some key facts to know:

1. The test is only a reliable indicator of your HIV status three months ago. That’s because it takes up to that long for your body to develop antibodies to the virus that the test detects. So if you want to test in response to a potential exposure incident from last week or even last month, this test—nor one given in the doctor’s office, for that matter—can give you that reassurance.

If you are concerned about a specific incident, experts recommend you get tested right away to learn your baseline status, and then again six weeks later.

2. A negative result isn’t a 100 percent guarantee of being HIV-free. The OraQuick home test has a false negative rate of one in 12, which means that one in 12 people who are infected with HIV will get a negative result when they take it. Testing too close to the potential exposure increases these chances. On the other hand, the false positive rate is extremely low (about one in 5,000).

If you test positive, it’s important to see a doctor immediately for further testing to confirm the diagnosis and also to learn the staging of disease so you can get the right treatment ASAP.

3. The test costs $40 and isn’t covered by insurance. There are cheaper ways to learn your status, including through free clinics or through your health care provider, if you have insurance.

Other concerns about the home test involve making sure patients who test positive get immediate emotional and medical treatment; since it’s completely anonymous, there’s no way to ensure people take these crucial next steps. OraQuick does have an anonymous 24-7-365 toll-free phone line with live assistance and comprehensive referral services to help address these issues.

Photo Credit: OraSure Technologies, Inc.

Magic Johnson on the Problem With the HIV/AIDS Fight

Nearly 21 years after his very public announcement of his HIV status and retirement from the NBA, Magic Johnson has become the most important public face of not surviving, but thriving, with HIV.

But he’s worried about the current complacency around the life-threatening virus, which 1.15 million Americans currently have (and 18 percent don’t know it). He acknowledges that his robust, healthy appearance may be a double-edged sword when it comes to public perception of the HIV threat. “You can’t have that attitude that ‘if I get it, I’m going to be like Magic,’” he says. “Early detection saved my life. We jumped on a regimen right away. We have to put the fear back in people that you could die.”

What’s more, Johnson says that people aren’t talking about HIV and feeling the pressure to get tested like they used to when he first began advocating for the cause. He is optimistic that the new OraQuick In-home test will be a game-changer by giving people the freedom to get tested wherever they feel comfortable.

Johnson ascribes his own ability to live well with HIV to a conversation he had with his doctor when he was first diagnosed, in which he asked what the people who have been living with HIV for a long time do to stay healthy. “Take your meds, positive attitude, and continue to work out,” was the answer he got. “I knew I had to accept my new status,” Johnson says today. “If you don’t put the meds with a positive attitude and the thinking that everything’s going to be OK, it will be tough for you.”

The AIDS patient and activist Elizabeth Glaser encouraged Johnson back in 1991 to go public with his status, which he now says is the best decision he and his wife ever made. “It really helped the HIV/AIDS fight at the time because it brought a face to it, and let people talk openly about it.

“I’ll never forget [Elizabeth Glaser],” he continues. “That’s why I always talk about her. I carry her torch as I’m doing the things I do in the HIV/AIDS fight.”

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest