Vancouver Creates Better HIV Test

by Winnie McCroy

EDGE Editor

Monday October 21, 2013

British Columbia will be the first province in Canada to use a more accurate HIV detection test that has greatly improved the diagnosis of early or acute HIV infection. The test is more expensive, but detects HIV up to three weeks earlier than the standard test.

According to an article in the Vancouver Sun, the new test, which will be utilized provincially following the results of a study led by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, detects the virus as soon as one to two weeks after it enters the body, compared with up to four weeks using standard HIV testing. That's important, because people have a higher risk of transmitting HIV to others during the earliest stage of infection.

"The test allows you to pick up infections very early, as soon as one to two weeks after a person is infected with HIV," said study co-author Dr. Mark Gilbert of the BCCDC. "And we know that when people find out they're HIV-positive, they take steps to ensure they don't pass it on to others. So by letting people know they have HIV in the first two weeks after infection, at a time when they have the highest chance of passing on the virus, this means a great opportunity to reduce the spread of HIV."

The study, released this month in the AIDS Journal, found that nucleic acid amplification testing (NAAT) greatly improved the diagnosis of early or acute HIV infection, according to a joint release by the BCCDC and the Provincial Health Services Authority.

The study estimated that between 25 and 75 new HIV infections were avoided as a result of a pilot program that promoted the pooled NAAT method -- a test developed in the U.S. -- since April 2009 at six clinics accessed by gay and bisexual men in Vancouver.

The study also concluded that the combination of pooled NAAT and social marketing campaigns was found to be highly effective in almost doubling the rate of acute HIV detection in the clinics, resulting in a 12 percent increase in the total number of HIV diagnoses.

The social marketing campaigns were aimed at both spreading awareness of the new test technology and informing gay men engaging in risky sex or initiating new relationships of acute HIV infection or the increased transmission risk.

In total, 25 men with acute HIV were diagnosed by pooled NAAT who otherwise would have received a negative result. Gilbert said that while the study was a pilot project, it would now be expanded to other clinics across B.C., but not broadly.

"It's a more expensive test, so the best way [to implement it] is to identify targeted settings where it will have the most impact," said Gilbert.

Research for the study was funded through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and supported through the provincial STOP HIV/AIDS program.

"Our government is committed to reducing the spread of HIV by ensuring those living with HIV/AIDS have access to the best care and treatment, and it is very exciting that this groundbreaking research is going on right here in B.C.," said B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake in a statement.

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.