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A patient undergoes an HIV test.

Jim Ross/The Globe and Mail

Two Vancouver pharmacies have launched a pilot project offering free rapid HIV tests that tell people within five minutes if they have the virus.

Reka Gustafson, medical director of communicable disease control at Vancouver Coastal Health, said Vancouver has made some progress in recent years when it comes to expanding HIV testing, but there is room for improvement.

"It's still not where we'd like it to be. We still diagnose people relatively late in their infection – we still know that people have many missed opportunities for diagnosis," Dr. Gustafson said in an interview on Tuesday.

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The year-long pilot project is a joint venture between Vancouver Coastal Health and Providence Health Care, the two agencies that operate health-care facilities in the city. The tests are available at Medicine Shoppe pharmacies at 2030 Kingsway and 6180 Fraser St. Both pharmacies are next to walk-in clinics, making it easier to get treatment for people who test positive.

Dr. Gustafson said it is important to make HIV testing as convenient as possible because the virus disproportionately affects younger people, who might not visit a doctor frequently.

"The best way to ensure early diagnosis is to make asking for an HIV test as easy as possible for a patient, and make the offer of an HIV test by health-care providers routine," she said.

The pilot will expand to two additional pharmacies – one in Victoria and one in Nanaimo – within the next month.

This is the first time such a project has been conducted in Canada, although Dr. Gustafson said similar projects have been conducted in the United States.

The test requires a pin-prick and a small amount of blood.

When asked if she hoped to see free HIV testing offered eventually at all Vancouver or B.C. pharmacies, Dr. Gustafson said she is approaching the project with an open mind and wants to determine what level of service is needed.

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Health Minister Terry Lake, in a written statement, called B.C. a global leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS. He said the pilot is "another step forward and will go a long way to improve early diagnosis and save lives."

Bob Rai, a pharmacist and co-owner of the two Medicine Shoppe pharmacies at which the pilot is being conducted, said he has been working with Vancouver Coastal Health for about 18 months to put the project together. He said the two pharmacies should yield a diverse mix of customers.

Mr. Rai said the pharmacists will share information about the test broadly rather than targeting certain types of people. He said the pharmacists want to be careful to avoid the stigma associated with HIV.

Dr. Gustafson could not provide a cost estimate for the pilot, although she said she expected it to be relatively low. The pilot is being funded through the B.C. STOP HIV/AIDS program, which receives annual funding of nearly $20-million.

The province two months ago announced that a ward at St. Paul's Hospital will no longer be dedicated to AIDS. The ward was opened in 1997, when the epidemic was at its peak and one person died in the city each day. The province said the number of deaths related to HIV/AIDS across B.C. has been reduced by 80 per cent since 1996.

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