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SAMJ: South African Medical Journal

On-line version ISSN 2078-5135
Print version ISSN 0256-9574


JOSKA, John A; KALISKI, Sean Z  and  BENATAR, Solomon R. Patients with severe mental illness: A new approach to testing for HIV. SAMJ, S. Afr. med. j. [online]. 2008, vol.98, n.3, pp.213-217. ISSN 2078-5135.

BACKGROUND: The prevalence of HIV infection in South Africa is approaching 20% of young adults. In severely mentally ill people it is probably higher. Testing for infection is subject to stringent ethical principles. Undiagnosed HIV infection in people with severe mental illness increases costs and morbidity. Since effective treatments are available, it is imperative to diagnose HIV infection early in this high-risk population. METHODS: A literature review established the prevalence of HIV infection in inpatient populations with HIV infection. The pattern of testing for HIV over 3 years at a major psychiatric hospital was investigated. We surveyed public sector psychiatrists in the Western Cape to establish their attitudes to HIV in their patients. RESULTS: The reported HIV seroprevalence in psychiatric inpatients ranges from 0 to 59.3%, with a mean of 10%. Data show a clear trend towards an increase in prevalence: before 1996 the mean HIV seroprevalence was 7.4%, while after 1996 the mean was 15%. State psychiatrists in the Western Cape do not test routinely for HIV infection, mainly owing to ethical constraints: 14.6% of patients at Lentegeur Hospital were tested in 2006. CONCLUSIONS: The high prevalence of HIV infection in South Africa, which is probably higher in patients with severe mental illness (most of whom are not competent to provide informed consent), and the availability of effective treatment require debate and a clear policy regarding testing for HIV infection to be implemented. We recommend a new approach to HIV testing in these patients.

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