about AIDS

Oral Test for HIVBecoming Available

You're afraid of needles, but you want to test for the virus that causes AIDS? A new HIV testing vehicle is different from past testing techniques: The test sample is taken from the mouth, not the bloodstream. Called OraSure, this SmithKline Beecham product is increasingly in use in medical settings, street and bar outreach testing, and other locations where blood collection would be difficult, unsafe, or needlessly expensive.

Hearing about an oral test, many folks react, "But I thought you couldn't catch HIV from saliva." That's right, you can't! The test is not for the virus itself. All HIV screening is done for antibodies, the chemical soldiers which the body makes to fight infection. The test sample is taken orally, but it isn't collecting saliva. Although antibodies can be found in saliva, this testing sample is collecting antibodies absorbed through the tissue of the cheek and gum.

A special large, flat, cotton swab is placed between the cheek and gum for a couple of minutes. If the person is infected, the treated cotton absorbs HIV antibodies through the tissue in a fluid called mucosal transudate. This sample is much stronger than one taken from saliva and doesn't have the impurities potentially found in saliva. The swab is then placed in a plastic collection tube and sent to a laboratory for testing.

The test is 99.97% accurate in clinical trials. The lab does an ELISA, confirmed if necessary with a Western Blot, just as if the sample were blood. Results are returned to the testing site within a few days and given to the person being tested. It is not a do-it-yourself-at-home test kit!

There are some great advantages to an oral test. No needles, no blood! No excuse for not being tested! It can be administered by trained non-medical personnel, and it doesn't have to be refrigerated.

So far its use is limited but growing, so you might not find it employed at your private physician's office yet. But it is being used increasingly by public "alternative test sites" and should be widely available at doctors' offices soon.

--Sandy Bartlett

Public Education/Information Coordinator

ASA Info Line: 458-AIDS

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