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APPROVE A HOME TEST FOR AIDS?

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Should the U.S. Food and Drug Administration let private firms sell home test kids that would enable Americans to find out whether or not they have HIV, the AIDS virus? Would such kits help or hinder the fight against AIDS?

The situation is so complex that it's hard to blame the FDA for agonizing over this decision. But there's an easy way to resolve the doubts, a way that has existed ever since this country adopted its federal system of government.Under the proposal, Americans would be allowed to buy the kits at their local drugstore. After pricking their finger and taking a small blood sample, they would mail in the sample and find out by telephone if they have HIV. People who were infected would talk to a counselor who would discuss HIV and refer them to a clinic or national AIDS hotline.

The case for authorizing the kits is based on the estimate that at least 40 percent of the some 1 million Americans infected with HIV have never been tested. Proponents of home testing say it would save lives by helping more people learn they're infected so they could get treatment and stop spreading the deadly virus.

But the FDA raises some legitimate questions. Does telephone counseling really work? Will people use home kits properly? Will labs test accurately? How will home testing affect present efforts to track the AIDS epidemic? Couldn't employers use the kits to secretly - and illegally - test workers?

Then there's the question of anonymity. Eleven states require the reporting of HIV patients by name - names the states keep secret by law. Other states require face-to-face AIDS counseling. How would companies sell home kits under those circumstances and still protect confidentiality?

Though the answers to such questions remain unclear, the way to find the answers should be readily apparent. That method has been available ever since this nation's founding fathers decided that states' rights enabled the various states to experiment with a variety of government policies and programs. That way, the federal government could see what worked and what didn't before opting for a nationwide law or policy on any particular topic.

As long as the users participated voluntarily and were fully informed about the potential pitfalls, any lingering doubts about the AIDS home test kits could be resolved by trying them out in a few selected communities. The AIDS epidemic is so serious that any reasonable prospect for curtailing it should be given a chance to show what it can and cannot do.