HIV Negative + Viral Load + Low T Cells = AIDS?

Dear Christine,

I went to the doctor for an ear infection and came back with an AIDS diagnosis. The AIDS has nothing to do with my ear (which was actually better by the time I had my appointment) or any other disease or illness. I didn’t even test HIV positive!

Once the doctor found out I was gay, he insisted on giving me an HIV test. After I tested negative, he did a viral load, and when that came back barely detectable (1,380), he said he had to check my T cells. Since my T cell count was 187, he gave me an AIDS diagnosis and prescriptions for three different drugs.

What just happened? I feel like I’m trapped a nightmare. Have you known of other people in my situation?

James T

Dear James,

Although your circumstances are somewhat unique, you are certainly not alone. I hear from a great number of men who go to the doctor for a minor complaint and leave with an AIDS diagnosis and a bag full of pills. This occurs most frequently with men who have shingles. Doctors today seem to believe gay men can’t have them unless they also “have HIV” even though shingles are quite common among HIV negatives. To cite just two examples from recent news, late night talk show host David Letterman was off the air for a couple weeks due to shingles and the princess of Japan was hospitalized for nearly a month with a bad outbreak. In both instances, doctors attributed their shingles to exhaustion and stress, but you can bet they’d be blaming HIV if either of them were gay men or had tested HIV positive.

Using viral load to supercede a negative HIV antibody test has become common practice since December of 1999 when the CDC added this and a couple other previously discounted testing methods to the list of ways to declare someone “HIV infected.” In this same document, the CDC reminded doctors hey can declare a patient HIV positive without any test at all so long as they exhibit signs of at least one AIDS-defining illness such as shingles.

If I were you, I would look for a doctor that treats patients without prejudice and does not diagnose AIDS at the drop of a T cell.

Take care,


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