A Faster HIV Test May Be Coming to Harris County Health (And That's Really Cool for All Kinds of Reasons.)

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We've come along way from the plague years when HIV was a death sentence. We're living in the days when some believe a cure is on the horizon and when the tests to find out if you've contracted the disease are getting faster and more precise.

It's becoming ever more clear that the key to dealing with HIV -- and preventing it from lurching into the final stages of the disease -- AIDS -- is how quickly you find out you're infected and get treated, and that's all about testing. So it's pretty cool that Harris Health System is in line to start running fourth-generation screening tests, if the Harris Health System board approves the deal, said Nancy Miertschin, HIV Project Manager for Harris Health System.

Harris County has one of the largest HIV-positive populations in the country, Miertschin noted, which makes early detection of the disease even more crucial here. Early detection helps people manage the disease, but in coming years, it could also be an important factor in curing HIV.

For years the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised testing focus on the groups most likely to be exposed to the disease, but the organization changed its tack in 2006, instructing medical groups to widen the net and start testing as many people as they could.

Harris Health System adopted this approach in 2008, testing any county hospital patient that didn't opt out. However, HIV is a tricky virus to track and the tests only caught people three weeks to six months after they'd got the virus. People are at their most infectious and are most likely to spread HIV in those first weeks and months of contracting the virus, but it took anywhere from three weeks to six months for it to show up in tests, Miertschin said.

The fourth-generation test will be able to detect the disease as soon as 11 days after it's been transmitted, which could help cut the numbers infected in those first days of infection. Early detection also translates to early treatment, and with HIV, the sooner you know, the better your chances are of managing the disease. Miertschin started with the program in 1996, just as antiretroviral medications were coming out, changing HIV from a death sentence to a disease that could be staved off and managed. It was a different world, Miertschin said.

"Sixteen years ago, Harris Health System wasn't doing routine HIV testing. Nobody was. We'd just barely entered the age of antiretroviral treatment and prevention. For this organization to move from just treatment to treatment and prevention, I think that's the finest thing a public health system can do," Miertschin said.

Harris Health System has worked out a deal with an unnamed medical company to provide the equipment and supplies needed to get the fourth-generation test in place. The test has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and is in use at Christus Santa Rosa Medical Center in San Antonio, but Harris will be the first hospital system in Houston to offer the test. If the Harris Health System board approves the deal, the test could be in place in a matter of weeks. At that point, Miertschin said, the agency will release the name of the company it's partnering with.

A lot of doctors have questioned the stories of the man who was cured of HIV infection in Berlin, the baby in Mississippi and the two men in a study in Boston. It's true that these initial bits of progress are only a tiny part of the way we have to go before anyone can actually say there's a cure, but if a cure is found, it stands to reason that getting to people before the virus has done much damage could matter greatly, and Harris Health System will already have a system in place.

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