Pros & Cons of HIV Rapid Testing

Generally speaking, clinical practitioners and scientists are always looking for new methods of testing which are not only more reliable and accurate, but also able to deliver results quickly. In the case of HIV testing, time spent waiting for the results of a test can be extremely difficult for a patient and their family. Ultimately the results of such a test can be life changing, and as such the ideal is to have a test which delivers results quickly as well as accurately.

This clinical need has led to the development of so called ‘rapid tests’. These are now making their way into broader use because they do offer a means by which HIV can be diagnosed in a fraction of the time it would otherwise take. That being said however, as a relatively new technology, rapid tests are also subject to some limitations that are an important consideration when using them and interpreting their results. In this article we look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of rapid testing techniques.

What are the benefits of HIV rapid testing?

Rapid HIV testing offers a number of distinct advantages and benefits which are exceptional useful in the clinical testing. The first being that testing can be performed quickly without the need for a prolonged period of waiting which can be extremely difficult when waiting for something as significant as an HIV result.

Secondly the post-test counseling that patients will need after a positive result can be provided on the same day as testing. What this means is that a patient presenting with symptoms indicative of HIV can go to their doctor, get tested, and start receiving the support they need all within a day. This also offers distinct clinical benefits as the earlier HIV treatments begin, the more effective the management of the condition can be.

Cost is also an important consideration when it comes to any form of testing, and rapid tests offer a cheaper method of getting HIV tests performed. This is an important consideration for the NHS which is always under budgetary constraints, and means that more HIV tests can be performed to catch the illness at its early stages.

As is the case with all sexually transmitted infections, quickly obtaining results also offers the benefits of limiting exposure and transmitted. Most STI transmission occurs because people are not aware of their infection, which means that they do not take steps to prevent the spread of the disease. If a positive HIV result is obtained quickly, the necessary steps can be taken by the patient to prevent the unwanted transmission of the illness.

Rapid tests are also much easier to use, which in scientific terms usually means that there is a smaller chance of a technical error during testing. Traditional antibody testing and more recent nucleic acid testing for HIV both involve multi-step processes which require specially trained staff in laboratory facilities. Rapid tests do not need anywhere as much training and support, which in turn is also cost effective.

Finally the results of most approved rapid tests currently in use are at about the same level of accuracy as the traditional ELISA method used by laboratories across the world. ELISA stands for Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay, a mouthful which refers to a technique that looks for the presence of antibodies which your body generates in response to an HIV infection. This test has been the staple method of detecting HIV for many years in hospitals and labs across the world, and the fact that the accuracy of this test can be translated into a simple rapidly administered test is fantastic.

What are the disadvantages of HIV rapid testing?

The main disadvantage of rapid testing is a consequence of a testing consideration called ‘the window period’. This is the period of time during which a test is not reliable because the particular compound it aims to detect might not be present in sufficient quantities for an accurate result.

Most HIV rapid tests work on the basis of detecting antibodies, defense molecules generated by your body in response to the HIV virus, unfortunately the flaw to this method is that the test is only reliable when antibodies are present in sufficient quantities. For rapid tests, the window period is the time it takes for antibodies to reach the required amount for reliable detection. This is traditionally up to 3 weeks after the transmission of HIV, although it can vary considerably, and in some cases the window period can be as long as 6 months.

What this means is that while the rapid test can deliver a result within half an hour, within the window period this kind of result would not be entirely reliable and re-testing to confirm is still necessary.

While this is a major consideration when it comes to using HIV rapid tests, the many benefits this testing offers still make the use of this type of test extremely popular. Rapid tests continue to improve in terms of their accuracy and reliability, and provide a very real clinical advantage in the testing and treatment of HIV.

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