Should I get tested for HIV?

by Kelly Bowles

Knowing about procedures, confidentiality issues, and local testing sites can help you make the best decision about your personal health

The decision to get tested for HIV can be emotionally complicated. If you are considering getting tested, it is important that you understand what the test consists of and exactly what the results mean. You should also know where to get tested, and speak with a trained and qualified counselor before doing so.

One common misconception is that the HIV test determines whether or not a person has AIDS. When someone gets tested for HIV, he or she is not being tested for the AIDS virus at all, but instead for the presence of antibodies to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Since the test detects these antibodies, which are produced by the immune system to fight HIV, the test is called the HIV antibody test, instead of the AIDS test. A positive HIV result is not a diagnosis of AIDS. It does indicate the presence of an HIV infection, and that the infected person should seek medical evaluation and treatment immediately. An HIV infection usually results in AIDS, but not with all HIV infected people. Early treatment can help ensure better and prolonged health.


What is involved in testing?

Only a very small amount of blood is required for HIV antibody testing. For accurate results, two different tests are used. The first test screens for the antibodies, and is called the ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) test. The positive ELISA test results are then confirmed by either the IFA (immunoflourescent assay) or Western Blot tests. If you elect to get tested, make certain that your testing center uses both tests to provide accurate test results.


What do the results mean?

Review the results and implications of your test with a medical practitioner or counselor. Regardless of your test results, you should always practice safer sex or abstain from sex, and should not share intravenous needles for any reason.

Negative. A negative test result means that there were no HIV antibodies detected at the testing time, and that either (a) you do not have an HIV infection, or (b) you do have an HIV infection, but have not yet developed antibodies to it. This usually happens if someone is tested less than 6 months after his or her exposure to HIV, because that it often takes at least 6 months for the body to react and produce the antibodies. At risk persons should be tested at least every 6 months, or as recommended by their doctor.

A negative test never means that you cannot become infected in the future, or that you are immune to HIV or AIDS.

Positive. A positive test result means that HIV antibodies were detected. A confirmed test means that you have been infected with HIV and will most likely remain infected. You need to remain aware that you can infect other people with HIV through (1) vaginal, anal or oral sex, (2) sharing intravenous needles, or (3) transfusion, transplantation or artificial insemination. The virus can also be given to a baby before or at birth, as well as through breastfeeding.

If your test is positive, it is extremely important that you seek an experienced and knowledgeable health care provider for medical evaluation and early treatment. If you are unsure who to contact, a local AIDS community service organization can provide you with a recommendation.


What will happen to the results?

Before being tested, find out what will happen to the results. Some people who tested positive, and whose results were disclosed, have experienced unwanted problems, such as discrimination. Be aware of the differences between anonymous and confidential testing.

Anonymous testing. The only way to guarantee that you have complete control over the test results is through an anonymous test. In an anonymous test, neither your name or any other record of your identity is taken. Many states have anonymous testing sites in which participants are only identified through a number, which they must present to receive the test results. If this method is used, you can be certain that the only people who will know your results are the ones you choose to tell.

Confidential testing. Confidential test results are protected information, as is the rest of your medical record, unless your permission is given to release it. However, it is possible for these results to be released accidentally by someone who has access to your records. If you use this method, always make sure you find out the exact approach your testing center will use to record results. Policies can vary greatly, and you don't need to endanger your privacy.


Where can I get tested?

If possible, it is advised to use anonymous testing, as opposed to confidential. For information about testing centers close to your home, as well as any other questions you may have, call the National AIDS Hotline at (800) 342-2437.

Many college health centers offer free convenient and confidential or anonymous HIV testing to the campus community. For example, the Carnegie Mellon Health Center provides free confidential/anonymous testing, in addition to pre- and post-test counseling. If you are interested, just call (412) 268-2157 to ask about this or to make an appointment.

You might consider getting tested for HIV if. . .

- you are at high risk of being infected, or have reason to believe you've been exposed to the virus.

- you are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant, breastfeeding, or fathering a child

- you want to feel the security of knowing your results.

- you will be required to participate in mandatory testing, like for military service.

Sources:

'The HIV Antibody Test' pamphlet by the American College Health Association.

'Women as Women With HIV.' Lancet. 4 Mar. 1995.

All Yahoo 'AIDS/HIV' web pages.