A new easy-to-use testing device that can accurately test the HIV load in blood within one hour has been developed.
The point-of-care kit is designed to provide healthcare professionals, especially in remote and rural areas with fast and accurate results to manage the virus.
Developed by an American healthcare company Abbott, the device known as m-PIMA HIV-1/2 VL was launched last week at the International Aids Society conference in Amsterdam, Netherlands. It is a test kit of its kind and able to give an accurate viral load in less than 70 minute.
The rapid turn-around time helps ensure that each patient who needs a viral load test result can get one in the same visit.
"The main issues that have been identified as important to the provision of effective diagnostic services are the ability to make them more accessible, user-friendly, and also at the same time, maintain quality and accuracy," explained Dr Kuku Appiah, director of medical and scientific affairs in Africa for Abbott.
In Kenya currently, such viral load tests take several weeks before patients can get results.
Viral load is a term used to describe the amount of HIV in a person's blood. The more HIV viruses there are in one's blood (and therefore the higher your viral load), the greater the chances of falling ill because of HIV.
If there is too little HIV in your blood that your viral load is 'undetectable', then the risk of HIV being passed on during sex is extremely low, even if condoms are not used.
Viral load tests measure the amount of HIV's genetic material in a blood sample. The results of a viral load test are described as the number of copies of HIV RNA in a millilitre of blood.
Currently, people have their blood samples drawn, which are then transported to a central lab.
"In many countries, there's a huge backlog for testing, and consequently, a delay in the receipt of test results in a time period that would help facilitate an earlier start of treatment, maintenance of the same treatment, or change in treatment," said Dr Appiah.
Viral load testing capacity is still weak in some of the countries with the highest burden of HIV infection in Sub-Saharan Africa and needs urgent improvement according to findings from a seven-country study of viral load testing activity published in December last year.
There are more than 1,000 HIV treatment sites in Kenya where a patient's viral load is tested annually.
"At the beginning of treatment, patients are usually advised to check their viral loads every six months. If the drugs are working as they should, we advise them to test once every year," said Dr Matilu Mwau, an infectious diseases specialist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri).
The World Health Organisation recommends that everyone taking antiretroviral treatment should receive a viral load test six months after starting treatment and every 12 months thereafter to check that viral suppression has been achieved and maintained.
Achieving a high level of viral suppression among people on antiretroviral treatment is also important for achieving the third 90:90:90 goal -- 90 per cent of people on ART virally suppressed by 2020.
Achieving this goal is projected to reduce HIV transmission as well as ensure the maximum health benefit from ART.
Some people, however, are not aware of their viral loads because they are not going for these tests. Further, experts think that about 400,000 people suspected to be HIV positive are not on treatment, hence adding to the risk.
"New technology needs to be sturdier, less temperature sensitive, and have the ability to be administered by healthcare professionals who may only have access to limited training. It also needs the ability to be provided at the point-of-care with access not only to testing but also to results within the same visit," added Dr Appiah.
The test is anticipated to be available in 2019 in countries that have either a significant burden of HIV like Kenya, as well as countries that do not have centralised labs or good sample transport.