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Gene-Based Detection Method Might Spot HIV Earlier

Nucleic acid testing found cases missed by routine screening, researchers say

TUESDAY, June 15 (HealthDay News) -- In a effort to improve the methods for early detection of HIV, researchers sought to determine if a program using "nucleic acid testing" (NAT) would increase the number of cases that could be detected early, and found that it did so by 23 percent.

Nucleic acid tests look for traces of genetic material from an infecting organism. This differs from standard detection methods that rely on spotting immune system antibodies to the pathogen.

Despite decades of prevention programs in the United States, the HIV incidence rate has remained stable, the study authors noted in a University of California, San Diego news release. The earliest stages of HIV infection are when people are most likely to infect others, so early and accurate detection is crucial in efforts to control the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, they explained.

This study included more than 3,000 people who sought HIV testing in community-based clinics in the San Diego area. The participants were first tested with a rapid saliva test. If it was positive, the patient was informed and blood was collected for a standard HIV test. If the result was negative, blood was taken for NAT.

Nearly one-quarter of people with identified cases of HIV had positive results only by NAT testing. The study also found that more than two-thirds of patients with negative NAT results used computer or voice-mail to obtain their results.

"Extending the use of NAT to routine HIV testing programs might help decrease the HIV incidence rate by identifying persons with acute infection that would otherwise be missed through routine screening," study first author Dr. Sheldon Morris, an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Diego's Antiviral Research Center, said in the UCSD news release.

"In addition, automated reporting of negative results may prove an acceptable and less resource-intense alternative to face-to-face reporting," Morris added.

The study findings were published in the June 14 issue of the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about HIV testing.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: University of California, San Diego, news release, June 14, 2010

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