Many people are surprised to learn that there
is no such thing as a test for AIDS. The tests popularly referred
to as "AIDS tests" do not identify or diagnose AIDS and
cannot detect HIV, the virus claimed to cause AIDS. The ELISA and
Western Blot tests commonly used to diagnose HIV infection detect
only interactions between proteins and antibodies thought to be
specific for HIV -- they do not detect HIV itself. And contrary
to popular belief, newer "viral load" tests do not measure
levels of actual virus in the blood.
All HIV antibody tests are highly inaccurate.
One reason for the tests' tremendous inaccuracy is that a variety
of viruses, bacteria and other
can cause the immune system to make antibodies that also react with
HIV. When the antibodies produced in response to these other infections
and antigens react with HIV proteins, a positive result is registered.
Many antibodies found in normal, healthy, HIV-free people can cause
a positive reading on HIV antibody tests. (23) Since the antibody
production generated by a number of common viral infections can
continue for years after the immune system has defeated a virus
-- and even for an entire lifetime -- people never exposed to HIV
can have consistent reactions
on HIV tests for years or for their entire lives.
The accuracy of an antibody test can be established
only by verifying that positive results are found in people who
actually have the virus. This standard for determining accuracy
was not met in 1984 when the HIV antibody test was first created.
Instead, to this day, positive ELISAs are verified by a second antibody
test of unknown accuracy, the HIV Western Blot. Since the accuracy
for HIV antibody tests has never been properly established, it is
not possible to claim that a positive test indicates a current,
active HIV infection or even to know what it may indicate. (24)
In one study that investigated positive results confirmed by Western
Blot, 80 people with two positive ELISAs that were "verified"
by a positive Western Blot tested negative on their next Western
Antibodies produced in response to simple infections
like a cold or the flu can cause a positive reaction on an HIV antibody
test. A flu shot and other immunizations can also create positive
HIV ELISA and Western Blot results. Having or having had herpes
or hepatitis may produce a positive test, as can vaccination for
hepatitis B. Exposure to microbes such as those that cause tuberculosis
and malaria commonly cause false positive results, as do the presence
of tapeworms and other parasites. Conditions such as alcoholism
or liver disease and blood that is altered through drug use may
elicit the production of antibodies that react on HIV antibody tests.
Pregnancy and prior pregnancy can also cause a positive response.
The antibodies produced to act against infection with mycobacterium
and yeast, infections which are found in 90% of AIDS patients, cause
false positive HIV test results. (26) In one study, 13% of Amazonian
Indians who do not have AIDS and who have no contact with people
outside their own tribe tested HIV positive. (26) In another report,
50% of blood samples from healthy dogs reacted positively on HIV
antibody tests. (27)
Prior to the notion that HIV causes AIDS, viral
antibodies were considered a normal, healthy response to infection
and an indication of immunity. Antibodies alone were not used to
diagnose disease or predict illness. Before HIV, only ELISA and
Western Blot tests that had been shown to correspond with the finding
of actual virus were used to diagnose viral infections. There is
no credible scientific evidence to suggest that these rules should
be disregarded to accommodate HIV.
In addition to being inaccurate, HIV antibody
tests are not standardized. This means that there is no nationally
or internationally accepted criteria for what constitutes a positive
result. Standards also vary from lab to lab within the same country
or state, and can even differ from day to day at the same lab. (28)
As HIV test kit manufacturers acknowledge, "At present there
is no recognized standard for establishing the presence or absence
of antibodies to HIV-1 and HIV-2 in human blood." (29)
The following chart illustrates just some of
the varying criteria for what is considered a positive HIV Western
Blot, and shows how someone could actually switch from positive
to negative simply by changing countries. The differing standards
for positive HIV tests are not limited to the locations and agencies
mentioned here -- criteria vary from lab to lab and results are
open to interpretation. An inconclusive test can become positive
or negative based on an individual's sexual preference, health history,
zip code or other survey data.
various proteins used in HIV Western Blot tests are arranged into
bands that are divided into three sections. These three sections
are represented by the abbreviations ENV, POL and GAG. Proteins
in the ENV section correspond to the outer membrane or "envelope"
of a virus; POL refers to proteins common to all retroviruses which
include polymerase and other enzymes; GAG stands for "group
specific antigen" and includes proteins that form the inner
core of a virus. The protein bands in each section are indicated
by the letter "p" and are followed by a number which describes
the molecular weight of that protein measured in daltons. For example,
p160 is an ENV protein that weighs 160 daltons.
It is important to note that none of the proteins
used in HIV antibody tests are particular to HIV, and none of the
antigens said to be specific to HIV are found only in persons who
test HIV positive. In fact, many people diagnosed HIV positive do
not have these "HIV antigens" in their blood.
As mentioned previously, newer HIV "viral
load" tests do not isolate or measure actual virus. The tests'
manufacturers clearly state that viral load "is not intended
to be used as a screening test for HIV or as a diagnostic test to
confirm the presence of HIV infection." (31) In fact, viral
load tests have not been approved by the FDA for diagnostic purposes
and have not been verified by virus isolation. For more information
on viral load tests, please see What's Up With Viral Load? on page
36. Of course, the most outstanding problem with any HIV test is
that HIV has never been demonstrated to cause AIDS.
Antigen: A substance
that can trigger an immune response, resulting in the production
of antibodies as part of the body's defense system against infection
and disease. Many antigens are foreign proteins (those not found
naturally in the body); they include microorganisms, toxins, and
tissues from another person used in organ transplantation. Antigen
stands for ANTIbody GENerating.
False Positive: Indicates infection
where none exists.