What You Should Know about Checking Your HIV Status

By Dr. Okechukwu Amako, MBBS (Ibadan)
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Many people who are HIV positive don't know their status because of ignorance and the fear of stigma from even family members and romantic partners. However, early diagnosis of HIV is very important as it enables the person to begin treatment early leading to their living a healthy life. This healthy living also means that such a person adopts a behavioural lifestyle (such as having protected sex, not sharing sharp objects and so on) that decreases his or her chances of transmitting the infection to another person.

Knowing your HIV status becomes very important if you have been exposed to any of the risk factors associated with the infection or your lifestyle or activities predisposes you to such risk factors such as:

1. You've had an unprotected sexual intercourse in the past. Or you've checked your HIV status before but then had more than one sexual partner after that.

2. You're receiving treatment for a sexually transmitted disease. Or you're about to start treatment for tuberculosis.

3. You are a constant injection-drug user who shares injection needles with others. Your partner should also be tested.

4. If your sex partner is HIV positive

5. If you're a sex worker, routine HIV test is recommended

6. If you work in a health facility like hospitals and labs where you are constantly exposed to bodily fluids like blood

Establishing that someone has an HIV infection requires a screening test and a confirmatory test.

1. The screening test is used to detect the response (antibodies produced by the body) of the body's immune system against the virus. This is usually done after the window period which is basically between 3 weeks and 3 months after exposure to a risk factor for infection such as an unprotected sexual intercourse when the body will have produced sufficient antibodies against the virus.

A screening test done within the window period (less than 3 weeks after exposure to a risk factor) will likely give a negative result despite the person being infected with HIV because the body has not produced antibodies to the level that can be detected by the test. In addition, wrong handling of the specimen or problem with the test kit can give a false-negative result (shows the person is HIV negative whereas he or she is truly HIV positive)

The screening test can also give a false-positive result (it shows a person is HIV positive whereas he or she is actually HIV negative). This happens:

-due to a technical error from the test kit or handling of the specimen by the lab staff

-in pregnancy, or the person recently received certain immunizations

-the person being tested has another infection such as hepatitis B

If you're not satisfied with your HIV screening test result (you feel it is a false-positive or false-negative result), go to another lab or hospital and request for another test. Ensure you inform the doctor and lab staff of your previous test and your dissatisfaction so that errors for false results will be minimized.

2. The confirmatory test is done as a follow-up test after the screening test to confirm the person is truly HIV positive. It involves separating the viral components and mixing them with the part of the blood that contains antibodies (serum) for a reaction. The result is compared with that of the screening test to finally say someone is HIV positive. The confirmatory test result can be positive, negative or indeterminate. A positive confirmatory test result after a positive screening test result means the person truly has HIV infection.

Being HIV-positive is not the end of the world. With early detection, treatment can be started immediately to ensure the person stays healthy. Combined with a healthy lifestyle adoption, such a person can go on to live a fulfilling life, including having a family of his or her own.

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Published Thursday, April 6th 2017

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