HAART is a customized combination of different classes of medications that a physician prescribes based on such factors as the patient’s viral load (how much virus is in the blood), the particular strain of the virus, the CD4+ cell count, and other considerations (e.g., disease symptoms). Because HAART cannot rid the body of HIV, it must be taken every day for life. HAART can control viral load, delaying or preventing the onset of symptoms or progression to AIDS, thereby prolonging survival in people infected with HIV. HAART has been in use since 1996 and has changed what was once a fatal diagnosis into a chronically managed disease.1
How Is HIV Detected?
When a person contracts HIV, his or her immune system produces antibodies, which are proteins that recognize the virus. The most commonly used HIV tests detect the presence of these antibodies. There are rapid tests that can provide results in 20 minutes2, but it usually takes 6–8 weeks after someone has been exposed to the virus for enough HIV antibodies to accumulate for accurate detection through testing (although improved HIV tests are now reducing this window to 2 weeks). This period represents one of the most dangerous for HIV transmission, since a person can receive a negative test result and yet be highly infectious, capable of rapidly spreading the virus through unsafe behaviors. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends that HIV testing be provided to anyone 13–64 years old as part of routine medical care and that this screening be performed annually for anyone at high risk for HIV infection (e.g., drug abusers, men who have sex with men, and sex workers). NIDA is collaborating with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and others to expand rapid HIV testing to drug treatment facilities to better identify HIV infections and to more efficiently engage patients in comprehensive treatment for both drug addiction and HIV infection.