HIV - Tests

What tests are used to monitor your HIV?

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What laboratory tests are used to monitor HIV-infected people?

Two blood tests are routinely used to monitor HIV-infected people. One of these tests, which counts the number of CD4 cells, assesses the status of the immune system. The other test, which determines the so-called viral load, directly measures the amount of virus in the blood.

In individuals not infected with HIV, the CD4 count in the blood is normally above 400 cells per mm3 of blood. People generally do not become at risk for HIV-specific complications until their CD4 cells are fewer than 200 cells per mm3. At this level of CD4 cells, the immune system does not function adequately and is considered severely suppressed. A declining number of CD4 cells means that HIV disease is advancing. Thus, a low CD4 cell count signals that the person is at risk for one of the many opportunistic infections that occur in individuals who are immunosuppressed. In addition, the actual CD4 cell count indicates which specific therapies should be initiated to prevent those infections.

The viral load actually measures the amount of virus in the blood and may partially predict whether or not the CD4 cells will decline in the coming months. In other words, those people with high viral loads are more likely to experience a decline in CD4 cells and progression of disease than those with lower viral loads. In addition, the viral load is a vital tool for monitoring the effectiveness of new therapies and determining when drugs are and are not working. Thus, the viral load will decrease within weeks of initiating an effective antiviral regimen. If a combination of drugs is very potent, the number of HIV copies in the blood will decrease by as much as hundredfold, such as from 100,000 to 1,000 copies per mL of blood in the first two weeks and gradually decrease even further during the ensuing 12-24 weeks. The ultimate goal is to get viral loads to below the limits of detection by standard assays, usually less than 50 or 75 copies per mL of blood. When viral loads are reduced to these low levels, it is believed that the viral suppression will persist for many years as long as the patient consistently takes their medications.

Drug-resistance testing also has become a key tool in the management of HIV-infected individuals. Details of these tests will be discussed later. Clearly, resistance testing is now routinely used in individuals experiencing poor responses to HIV therapy or treatment failure. In general, a poor response to initial treatment would include individuals who fail to experience a decline in viral load of approximately hundredfold in the first weeks, have a viral load of greater than 500 copies per mL by week 12, or have levels greater than 50 or 75 copies per mL by week 24. Treatment failure would generally be defined as an increase in viral load after an initial decline in a person who is believed to be consistently taking his or her medications. Since drug resistant virus can be transmitted, guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) (http://www.aidsinfo.nih.gov) and International AIDS Society-USA (IAS-USA) have suggested that resistance testing be performed in individuals who have never been on therapy to determine if they might have acquired HIV that is resistant to drugs.

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