SPOT, a free and anonymous HIV testing facility, opened in Montreal’s Gay Village this July for the exclusive use of gay and bisexual men, as well as heterosexuals who have sex with other men.
The three-year pilot project is a joint research initiative to help curb the HIV/AIDS epidemic and conduct research on the subject through the collaboration of 16 organizations, including McGill, Concordia, Université de Laval, Université du Québec à Montréal, and numerous community groups including the Séro-Zéro, a group that supports the sexual and emotional health of gay men, including sex workers.
The project also receives financial support from the province, through the Québec agence de la santé et des services sociaux de Montréal, and l’Institut national de la santé.
Thomas Haig, a co-investigator from Séro-Zéro, said that SPOT is unique because of the heavy collaboration between research and community organizations.
“One of the very innovative and exciting things is that it brings together academic and community-based researchers under one roof. That’s a fairly new thing to do – have them be partners and have a community researcher as a main partner,” Haig said.
Haig also explained that testing will specifically target men because they are the most at-risk population for HIV/AIDS in Montreal.
“Between 60 and 70 per cent of all new [HIV] infections in Montreal occur between men who have sex with men. The funding applications [for SPOT] were all done specifically in addressing this epidemic,” Haig said.
“The prevalence rate for HIV for men who identify as gay, who identify as bisexual, or men who might identify as straight but who have sex with men is 15 per cent. Compare that to the overall prevalence rate for Canada, which is 0.04 per cent [in 2007],” Haig said.
The Canadian AIDS Society notes similar statistics on their web site, as well as the fact that almost half of all reported cases of HIV in Canada remain within the demographic of men who have sex with men – though it has decreased from around 80 per cent in the eighties.
SPOT offers both conventional and rapid HIV testing. Rapid HIV tests can produce results in as little as five minutes and only require drops of blood using a finger prick, rather than the traditional method of drawing blood with a needle. However, the test requires the infected person to have contracted the virus at least three months prior. While it’s expensive, the clinic offers the rapid test for free.
In a CBC interview, McGill Faculty of Medicine professor and SPOT investigator Mark Wainberg noted that one in three HIV-positive Canadians don’t know they have the virus, and this population is most responsible for new infections.
Wainberg’s fellow Faculty of Medicine professor and co-investigator Bluma Brenner said that SPOT attempts to address this problem.
“When people are newly infected they can infect others – that’s a time of high transmission. Unfortunately it’s very hard to detect symptoms of HIV. People need to be routinely tested,” Brenner said. “What we’re trying to do is offer routine HIV testing together with innovative counselling approaches, to do a proactive approach to eliminate male sex infection.”
A member of the Conseil québécoises de gais et lesbiennes speculated on why HIV infection has gone unchecked in the past.
“[The stigma associated with the virus] is probably one of the major reasons people don’t go for testing, though definitely not the only one,” he said. “Some people don’t know enough about the consequences of the disease – they think ‘I’ll take a pill and be okay.’”
When asked whether the establishment of the clinic indicated that HIV testing is not yet accessible enough, the representative pointed out that “if an organization decides to put [up] a clinic, it probably means that it is not accessible for people to get tested when needed [with the current facilities].”