Answering the Most Common HIV Test Questions

Knowledge is power when it comes to HIV awareness. Take a deep dive with us into the most-asked HIV test questions.
Answering the Most Common HIV Test Questions

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is the causal agent of the condition known as Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). AIDS represents a spectrum of conditions caused by the HIV virus, either type 1 or type 2, which attacks the immune system itself, thereby making an infected person vulnerable to all manner of infection and illness. Symptoms can be absent or mild initially, making the condition more difficult to detect. Early HIV diagnosis is key to optimal outcomes.

Who is Most at Risk for HIV?

As of 2019, 38 million people were living with HIV1. High-risk scenarios for contamination include illicit, unsafe injection drug use, unprotected sex, unsafe blood transfusions or tissue transplantations. Those most at risk include anyone with a high likelihood of being exposed to the infected blood or bodily fluids of others, including emergency medical professionals and medical patients. The virus can also be transmitted from a mother to her child during pregnancy, delivery, and breastfeeding.

While medical advances over the last two decades have made HIV/AIDS increasingly survivable, early detection remains critical for optimal long-term outcomes. In cases where an individual is exposed and infected without being properly diagnosed, the disease can reach advanced stages, drastically reducing the chance of survival and recovery.

When to Get Tested?

The time to get tested for HIV is as soon as possible after a suspected infection. If blood, objects, or fluid that may contain infected blood has come in contact with a person’s mucous membranes or broken skin, or an event has occurred where foreign blood or bodily fluid may have been mixed with the patient’s – it is time to be tested. There are also recommendations for yearly testing for those at high risk.

Such contact could occur in a hospital setting, at the scene of an accident, after sharing needles, through unsafe blood transfusions, through consumption of breast milk, or through having unprotected sex. According to the WHO, approximately 1.7 million people across the globe were newly infected in 2019, and 38 million are currently living with the virus2.

What is Involved in an HIV Test?

It is important that HIV testing services follow the 5Cs: consent, confidentiality, counseling, correct results and connection with treatment and other services.
World Health Organization

HIV testing is both voluntary and confidential. The patient will be administered an HIV assay, of which there are different types. Most common HIV assays include:

  • HIV rapid/self-test assay: this assay is used near-to-patient or by the patient at home. Most rapid tests detect HIV antibodies only. The result has to be confirmed by a lab screening test
  • HIV laboratory screening assay: now usually recommended to be a 4th generation/HIV Combo (detecting both HIV-1 antigen and HIV-1 and HIV-2 antibodies), this HIV assay is used in labs to test for either HIV-1 or HIV-2 infection and as a method of screening blood and plasma donors
  • HIV supplemental assay: This HIV assay is used after a screening test to determine whether a patient has HIV-1 or HIV-2, as opposed to simply testing for HIV in general

There are a number of challenges with these tests that science has been working diligently to remedy. Existing HIV rapid tests are notoriously subjective and difficult to interpret. Some HIV assays yield faint indicator lines, which may be easily misinterpreted. Ambiguous test results, insufficient staff training and inadequately allocated testing resources are some of the most common problems with HIV tests.

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1. HIV/AIDS. (2020, November 30). World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/hiv-aids

2. HIV/AIDS. (2020b, November 30). World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/hiv-aids

3. BioRad HIV Assay Brochure

Editorial Team
Editorial Team
The Beckman Coulter editorial team brings you timely news and resources focused on elevating clinical laboratory performance and advancing patient care.

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