Reliability of Nucleic Acid Testing Methods for the Detection of HIV

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Reliability is possibly the most important characteristic of any method of testing for illness. While modern HIV testing is quite accurate, there is a drive to improve existing technologies and develop better methods of detecting this condition as quickly and accurately as possible as rapid HIV detection can have important outcomes in terms of patient care. In this article we look at the reliability of a relatively new method of testing which is making its way into broader use, nucleic acid based HIV testing.

How can nucleic acid testing for HIV be more reliable than other testing methods?

While traditional methods of testing for HIV are quite effective, one of their major shortcomings is that their accuracy is reduced over the few weeks following infection (a length of time known as the period). Testing in this time can lead to false results, and because of the huge variability in the length of the window period, care must be taken in the administration and interpretation of results.

Nucleic acid tests can detect small amounts of virus directly by amplifying their genetic material to the point where it can be accurately detected and diagnosed. Because of this, NATs have a substantially shorter window period than classic antibody tests (17 days compared to as long as 3-6 months), which means that they can be used reliably closer to the time of infection. This is particularly useful where the exact time of infection is not clear.

Improved reliability means better quality results and more confidence when reporting a result or diagnosis to a patient. A false negative or false positive result can have serious medical and emotional consequences on a patient considering how severe HIV can be in the long run.

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