Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Equivocal about HIV

I had a bit of an HIV scare last year. This is what happened: Virgil and I went along to the local STD clinic for a regular check-up. Two weeks later I started to think about calling up for the results, but then a man called Nigel from the clinic phoned.

Nigel told me in a very reassuring tone that all of my tests had come back negative except one, the HIV one. 'It's not a positive result; it's just not a negative. We call them equivocal results,' he explained. And then a load more explanation followed, at the end of which I put on my coat and caught a bus to the clinic to get tested again.

I don't know anyone else who has had an equivocal HIV test result. Once a friend told me that her brother had tested positive and that even though he didn't have HIV it kept happening. I remembered this and thought well ok, that must have been an equivocal result. It made me feel better. I wasn't happy but I didn't freak out. Nor did I tell my mum though.

Nigel's clinic is just the local STD clinic. They're not specialists. They get about one case each month of people testing positive who turn out not to have HIV/Aids. 'No test is perfect,' he tells me in his office. 'When they take your blood they do three different tests on it: two of yours came back negative but one was a weak positive. It could be a lab error or you could have something in your body that resembles the antigens of the HIV virus enough that the test thinks it's found the real thing.'

Then he adds: 'But you could also have only recently been infected.'

The upshot was that I had to keep getting tested until a period of time had elapsed during which if I hadn't been on retrovirals I definitely would have a measurable amount of the virus in my blood. At which point they did a viral load test. I kept getting positive antibody results (so it definitely wasn't a lab error) but eventually the viral load test came back negative too and they discharged me. I still don't know what it is in my blood that is confusing the test, but at least it's not the HIV virus.

The whole thing took about two months and I confess it was weird. The reality was that I had not had that much sex in the six months before the test. Apart from Virgil, there had only been two guys, and I'd used condoms with both of them. Not that I use condoms for oral sex. I'm aware that this carries a risk but it's one I take.

But from time to time I would think: 'Crap – I might be HIV positive.' I wasn't seriously worried but that is still a lot different from my usual mindset which is: 'I don't have any STDs or life-shortening illnesses' (although cancer runs in my family and at times I feel sure that's what will do for me eventually).

At my final consultation, at which I was discharged, Nigel commented on my calmness. I said, 'Well, I understand the situation and I always knew I was unlikely to have had it.' Nigel said that for some people having the uncertainty of an equivocal result was almost worse than a positive, but I'm not sure I buy that.

So there you go. An equivocal HIV test result. I was puzzled at how little information I found online. If you've had one I hope that hearing about my experience is helpful and I hope that yours ends as uneventfully.

Sadly my HIV mini-drama was put in perspective a few days ago when an old friend told me that he really is HIV positive, of which more to come. I'm still processing the news.

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