UNC HIV-AIDS screening, prevention method could become national model for cutting illness

CHAPEL HILL -- Earlier and more accurate diagnosis of acute infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is not only possible but also practical -- by pooling blood samples from people being screened for HIV and conducting nucleic acid tests on those grouped specimens.

That's the promise of a new first-of-its-kind, statewide N.C. Department of Health and Human Services effort that may become a model for cutting HIV transmission and saving lives across the nation. A news report on the program appears in this week's (May 28) issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Designed and tested by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill medical scientists together with state public health officials at HHS, the Screening and Tracing Active Transmission (STAT) program began quietly in November, its developers say, and is only now being publicly announced.

"Testing strategies employed in the program are already used by the nation's blood banks for screening donated blood," said Dr. Christopher Pilcher, chief program developer. "When used to enhance testing, the procedures are proving to be a distinct improvement over standard antibody tests. This is because antibody assays cannot detect the virus for up to two months post-infection and therefore miss the earliest, most infectious period when carriers can spread the virus before they even know they have it.

"The acute stage of the infection is almost never diagnosed in clinical practice and is always missed by routine antibody tests," said Pilcher, assistant professor of medicine at the UNC School of Medicine. "So we have always missed the diagnosis at the time when we know that people have by far the most virus in their blood and are at their most infectious. In fact, when these patients got tested in the past, they would receive a falsely reassuring negative test result. If we can catch infected people during the first weeks when routine antibody tests are still negative, t

Contact: David Williamson
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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