Q: I keep reading about HIV tests that you can take at home. I even read somewhere that guys who want to hook up with another guy will make him take the HIV test first so they can decide whether or not to use a condom. Should I give this a try? What does it cost?

A: Whether you should give these tests a try depends on what you’re using the test for and how much risk you want to take. If you want to test someone who you’re about to have sex with, the only option is Oraquick. You can buy an Oraquick test kit for $36 at a drug store. Inside is a device that you use to swab the inside of your (or your possible sexual partner’s) mouth. You stick that in a tube with some fluid. Then you wait 20 to 40 minutes for the result. If it’s a hookup situation, let’s hope you have a lot to talk about while you wait!

OraquickSounds easy, right? But there is a major caveat:

If someone is HIV positive, Oraquick is 92 percent likely to show that. Of course that means that there’s a chance that in eight out of 100 instances, an HIV positive person will be diagnosed as negative (keep those condoms handy!)

Oraquick detects the presence of an HIV antibody. An antibody is something the body develops to fight a virus. It can take time for a body to produce enough antibodies for Oraquick to find them. The federal Centers for Disease Control says that 97 percent of those infected with HIV produce detectable antibodies within three months of infection. That means that Oraquick may not detect the HIV virus if the person with whom you want to have unprotected anal sex tonight was infected with HIV the night before.

Oraquick is better at accurately determining that someone is HIV negative than determining that he is HIV positive. The federal Food and Drug Administration says the chance of an HIV negative person being wrongly diagnosed as HIV positive by Oraquick is only 1 in 5,000. If an Oraquick test shows that you’re infected with HIV, you should visit your doctor or medical clinic for another test to confirm that.

The FDA also has approved Home Access HIV-1. It’s a bit more painful — it requires a slight skin prick to get a sample of your blood. It’s also a lot slower. You have to put the blood sample on a strip of paper and then mail it off for testing. Home Access isn’t something you can buy at the drugstore. You have to call the manufacturer (800-448-8378) and order the kit. For $44 Home Access will have your results within seven business days of the time it receives the blood sample. You call them to find out. For $59.95, Home Access will give you the result the day your blood sample arrives at its laboratory.

While the cost and the time required to get an answer may be negatives, a positive is that Home Access’s HIV test is 99.9 percent reliable at detecting HIV antibodies in the blood of an infected person. But remember, three percent of those with HIV don’t develop enough antibodies to the disease in the first three months of infection for Home Access (or Oraquick) to find.

Conclusion? If you’re trying to determine your own HIV status without going to a doctor or clinic, take a Home Access test. And if the result is negative (and you’ve had safe sex all along) take another one three months later to confirm your status.

If you’re using Oraquick to decide whether to risk unprotected anal sex with another guy, remember there’s no way to be absolutely sure that a test showing he’s negative is accurate. On average, eight times out of 100, a negative test will be wrong. You might be one of those lucky guys who takes 92 risks in a row without consequences. Or you might be one of those guys who is unlucky the first chance you take.  A less risky bet might be spending $10 on the California Mega Millions lottery.

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