Testing for HIV during Pregnancy

It can come as a surprise to many people the STIs like HIV are tested for as part of routine antenatal (pregnancy) care. HIV is an infection that has severe repercussions on the health of men and women alike, and because of its ability to transfer to an unborn child, it is important to determine whether or not the mother to be is infected. In this article we look at all the reasons why HIV is tested for during pregnancy and how it is usually done.

Why is HIV tested for during pregnancy?

In order to get pregnant a person will obviously have had to experienced unprotected sexual intercourse, and any unprotected sexual encounter carries with a risk of sexually transmitted infection. As this is the case, it is standard practice for pregnant women to undergo a series of blood tests during the first trimester (first three month period of their pregnancy) to determine whether or not they are carrying or suffering from an STI.

Many STIs, HIV included, do not present with any clear cut symptoms for weeks, if not months. Other examples include chlamydia and gonorrhea, and all of these STIs are tested for through antenatal blood screens. This is not only performed with a mother’s health in mind, but also because STIs can very easily be transmitted to an unborn child. This can occur either through the exchange of blood and other materials at the placenta, a structure designed to provide a growing baby with much needed nutrition and other materials, or through a baby’s passage through the birth canal during delivery (where many STI causing bacteria often reside).

HIV can potentially be transferred to an unborn baby through maternal blood, and this would naturally lead to the birth of a child already suffering HIV. This means that a child will be born carrying a virus which will lead to a very severe condition (AIDS) that will affect the quality and length of their life.

HIV testing during pregnancy can help doctors take action to minimize the chances of the transmission of HIV to an unborn baby. This testing can also detect an infection which has been lying dormant and provide a mother-to-be with the treatment she needs.

What happens if a pregnant woman tests HIV-positive?

If a pregnant woman is found to be HIV positive then steps can be taken to treat her and to minimize the risk of transferring the virus to her child. A doctor will begin a course of treatment called HAART, which stands for highly active antiretroviral therapy, and sometimes other supplementary treatments if necessary.

HAART has been shown to be an effective method of preventing HIV transmission, and there are ways of testing a developing fetus for signs of the HIV infection. Typically speaking pregnant women in this situation are provided with three HAART drugs which have proven very effective.

Pregnant women suffering from HIV are usually advised not to breast feed as the virus can potentially make its way into the newborn baby through breast milk.

How are pregnant women tested for HIV?

As mentioned previously in this article, the standard method for testing pregnant women for HIV is through blood screens. Blood samples are taken for testing during the early stages of a pregnancy and screened for a number of different conditions, including HIV and other STIs. The blood sample can be examined for the presence of the virus in any one of a number of different ways, depending on the particular practices of the testing laboratory.

One of the standard methods of detecting HIV in this manner is through an antibody test called ELISA (Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay), which has been used across the world as a reliable and accurate technique for the detection of both HIV-1 and HIV-2. More recently newer techniques like Nucleic Acid Based Testing have proven more effective.

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