Hundreds of rough sleepers are to be offered screening for the blood-borne viruses hepatitis and HIV in a programme starting today (Monday 22 June).
The screening programme has been set up by the Martin Fisher Foundation, a Brighton charity, in partnership with a not-for-profit organisation called EmERGE M-Health.
The programme aims to reach hundreds of rough sleepers, most of whom are currently in hotels, guest houses or university halls of residence in Brighton and Hove.
Outreach workers from Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust and the Terrence Higgins Trust, are working with support workers from homeless charity St Mungo’s.
They will go into three hotels – the Britannia, the King’s Hotel and the Brighton Hotel – and offer screening using a simple finger-prick test.
About 200 homeless people are housed in the three hotels, with St Mungo’s staff providing support seven days a week.
The finger-prick test, which has an accuracy record of 98.8 per cent, will enable the team to check for HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
The team said that personal protective equipment (PPE) would be used when they were face to face and that those being screened would be offered a £5 food voucher for their time and engagement. The project has been funded by Gilead Sciences.
Gillian Dean, trustee of the Martin Fisher Foundation and consultant HIV physician, said: “The covid-19 response has given us a once in a lifetime chance to reach out to this traditionally ‘hard-to-find’ group and offer them screening.”
It follows the government’s order to councils to find places for rough sleepers to stay at the start of the lockdown in response to the covid-19 coronavirus.
Locally, Brighton and Hove City Council used hotels and guest houses, which were ordered to close during the lockdown, to house rough sleepers and people who had been sofa-surfing.
Some sofa-surfers were unable to stay where they were because of measures to “shield” or protect the vulnerable as part of the wider social distancing and isolation rules.
The team behind the screening programme said: “This new arrangement provides a unique, short-lived opportunity to reach out to this group to address some health needs while their accommodation is more secure.”
And Dr Dean added: “By offering finger-prick tests, we’re expecting a higher uptake, and knowing where clients are living will improve our chances of linking those testing positive in to care.
“The project supports the Brighton and Hove Towards Zero HIV initiative while also working towards the national target eliminating hepatitis C.”
Marc Tweed, centre manager at Terrence Higgins Trust in Brighton, said: “At the heart of the project is working in partnership with a network of professionals in the city drawing on their specialist knowledge and skills to ensure that what we are offering meets the complex and diverse needs of the people we want to engage.
“It’s vital during the covid-19 pandemic that we don’t forget about other viruses which are still affecting people.
“We must continue to adapt and innovate testing services through developing fantastic new ideas such as this one so we can continue to reach and support those who are most vulnerable in our communities.
“In the light of recent medical advances, as we look towards ending new HIV transmissions in Brighton and Hove and encourage more people to test for HIV and hepatitis C, it’s vital we don’t take our eye off the ball in continuing our testing, treatment and prevention efforts.
“That’s why Terrence Higgins Trust wholeheartedly supports this project and is proud to be a part of it.”
Jaime Vera, senior lecturer in HIV medicine and consultant HIV physician, said: “This project offers a unique opportunity to engage with a group that struggle to access testing for infections in traditional healthcare facilities.”
The team behind the project hope not only to treat those who currently have HIV or hepatitits but to prevent the further spread of those viruses.
Mr Tweed said: “We know that traditional testing and health care services often don’t meet the needs of the street homeless.
“This can sometimes mean that people struggle to access services at a time when they need understanding and support.
“That’s precisely why using workers who are known to the homeless community, and trusted, to offer testing in a confidential and stigma-free setting means we can empower people to live well and flourish.
“Hopefully we can not only changes lives, we can look to end stigmatising attitudes to HIV and hepatitis C testing.”
Dr Vera added: “We hope to learn about barriers and facilitators for engagement into care that could inform future strategies to facilitate access to testing and treatments.”
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