Govt to provide free viral load testing to people living with HIV/AIDS

Children display ribbon cut-outs tied to balloons during an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign to mark World AIDS Day.

Vidhi Verma

New Delhi: After years of wait, the government has finally included free viral load testing for people living with HIV as part of the its national HIV programme.

The Wire reported that the government has said it will provide free testing for 12 lakh people living with HIV, at least once a year.

Health minister J.P. Nadda said this was a historic decision and would help the government monitor the uptake of the first line anti-retroviral therapy (ART) much better. This will, in turn, prevent drug resistance, can track whether people follow up on their treatment and ultimately ensure the longevity of people with HIV.

The viral load test is a diagnostic tool which gives an idea of how much of the HIV virus is in one’s body. It measures the number of HIV copies in a mililitre of blood.

The test predicts how fast the disease can progress. A low viral load will mean greater life expectancy, provided treatment is adhered to.

One viral load test needs to be done just after a person is diagnosed. This gives doctors a baseline measurement. Subsequently, the test needs to be done so that doctors can monitor how the anti-retroviral therapy has been working on the patient. Effective drug combinations can drop the viral load substantially. In about six months of adhering well to the treatment regimen, a person’s viral load can drop substantially.

The government has also finalised the National Guidelines for for HIV-1 Viral Load Laboratory Testing, National Operational Guidelines for Viral Load Testing, Standard Operating Procedure for HIV-1 Quant Assay with CBNAAT and Guidelines on Quality Monitoring System for Outsourced Viral Load Tests. They have not yet published these on the ministry’s website.

“India’s HIV programme was so far working blind, without giving this viral load test. Access to viral load test is an essential diagnostic for a patient but is also a quality indicator for any ART programme. So this is a very welcome step,” said Leena Menghaney from Doctors Without Borders.

For a patient, access to this test tells doctors if their regimen needs to be changed or if they are adhering well to the existing regimen. “Regimen change should not come in the end when a person has full blown AIDS,” said Meghaney, adding that the government had been planning for this for three years.