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Screening for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)

Why is screening for HIV important?

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is the virus that causes AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). HIV attacks the cells in the immune system that fight off infections and disease, so the body gradually becomes less able to fight rare and often fatal illnesses. When a person with HIV becomes sick from one of these diseases, he/she is said to have AIDS.

If you have HIV, you may not look or feel sick for years after infection occurs. In other words, you may not even know that you have the virus! HIV is spread through blood, semen, and vaginal secretions, so if you have sex or share drug needles with others, you may unknowingly be spreading the virus. If you're pregnant, you may be spreading the virus to your baby. That's why screening for HIV is so important. It will help you avoid infecting others.

Screening is also important because if HIV is found, you will be able to get the medical care and support you'll need to help you stay healthy longer.

How do you screen for HIV?

A blood test called the HIV Antibody Test screens for HIV. A health care worker will use a sterile needle to take some blood from your arm. The blood is then tested for signs of HIV antibodies. If HIV antibodies are found, the test is positive, which means you are infected with HIV. If the test comes back negative, it may mean that you are not infected, or that there has not been enough time for the HIV antibodies to show up on the test (it can take up to six months for the antibodies to appear after you've been infected). If you have a negative test, you may be asked to have another test at a later time.

Test results are treated as privileged medical information. Anonymous screening is available through the Health Department.

Who needs to be screened for HIV?

All pregnant women should be screened for HIV. The following people are at increased risk for HIV infection and should also be screened:

  • People who have other sexually transmitted diseases;

  • Men who have had sex with men after 1975;

  • Past and present injection drug users;

  • People who have had sex with people who are HIV-infected, bisexual, or injection drug users;

You should also discuss methods for reducing your risk of HIV infection with your doctor. These include: not having sex; only having sex with an uninfected partner; using condoms; and not sharing drug needles.

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