Understanding HIV viral load vs CD4 count


HIV tests can gauge more than just the presence of the virus in the bloodstream. Dr Avron Urison from AllLife explains what the tests reveal.

T cells and CD4 counts

T-cells are a type of white blood cell that is of key importance to the immune system and is at the core of adaptive immunity, the system that tailors the body's immune response to specific pathogens. The T-cells are like soldiers who search out and destroy the targeted invaders.

There are two main types of T-cells that play an important role in the immune system. The CD4+ T-cell has CD4+ molecules on its surface and is responsible for gearing up the body’s immune system to respond to microorganisms such as viruses. The CD8 T-cell has CD8 molecules on its surface and is responsible for destroying cells that are infected with organisms such as viruses. CD8 T-cells also produce anti-viral substances.

HIV is able to attach itself to the CD4+ cell, allowing the virus to enter and infect these cells. The virus multiplies in the infected cell, producing many copies of the virus and destroying the CD4+ cell in the process. The body produces billions of new CD4+ cells to replace those that have been destroyed.

CD4+ cells are measured by the number of cells per cubic millimetre (mm) of blood. This is referred to as the CD4+ count. A normal count is between 600–1200 CD4+ cells per mm3 of blood but this may vary from person to person and may even vary from day to day and hour to hour. Younger persons may have higher counts than older people. A further measurement is the percentage of CD4+ cells of the total, white immune cell population. In HIV negative individuals this is normally around 40% but in HIV positive individuals can be lower. If the CD4+ percentage falls below 15% then there is serious risk of opportunistic infection.

Regular monitoring of CD4+ count and viral load (see below) helps determine whether the treatment is working. As long as the trend is upward or stable then there is positive indication of the effectiveness of the treatment. A consistent fall in CD4+ count may indicate that the treatment is becoming less effective, but any decision to change treatment will normally be taken in conjunction with a viral load test. Once therapy has started, it is normally recommended that CD4+ counts be done every 6 months, together with a viral load test.

Viral load

A viral load test counts the number of HIV particles in a sample of blood. The result is expressed as the number of ‘copies’ of HIV RNA per ml (millilitre) of blood. It is now generally accepted that 10 000 copies per ml or less is considered low and 50 000 copies per ml and above is considered high.

There are several tests that measure the amount of HIV, although the tests become unreliable at low levels of infection. Originally, this limit was less than 400 or 500 copies per ml. New ‘ultra-sensitive’ tests are now able to measure to a lower limit of 50 copies per ml and these may be the tests that are more widely used. Depending on the test used, a measurement below the limit of detection may be referred to as ‘undetectable’.

The test for viral load is one of the monitoring tests that can indicate disease progression and may give an indication as to the likely course of HIV infection, if left untreated. It is generally accepted that higher viral load may lead to more rapid disease progression, but other indicators such as CD4+ count and symptoms should also be considered when deciding to take treatment.

When treatment is started, the viral load test gives an indication of how effective the anti-HIV regimen is. When starting a treatment, or switching from one treatment to another, an individual should have a baseline viral load test prior to the start or change of drug treatment. A second test should follow a couple of months later, so as to monitor the effect of the drugs. It is then normal to have repeat tests every six months or more frequently, if there are indications that the regimen is not effective.

In some people, a drug combination can reduce the viral load to 'undetectable', even if the CD4+ count remains low. An ‘undetectable’ viral load normally means that the virus is less likely to develop resistance to the drugs and that viral replication is very slow. It is normal practice to try and reduce the viral load to ‘undetectable’ at the 50- copy level by the 24th week of treatment.

If an individual is taking the drugs correctly and viral load starts to rise again, it may mean that the drugs are becoming less effective, most probably due to viral resistance. It should be noted that the viral load only gives an indication of the amount of HIV in the blood and does not measure virus present in the brain and genital fluids where the effect of drugs may vary. The individual may therefore still be infectious to others.

(Dr Avron Urison, May 2012)

Read more:

CD4 T-cell count in HIV patients

At-home HIV test gets thumbs up

 Dr Avron Urison is Medical Director at AllLife Pty Ltd - providers of life insurance for HIV positive individuals – www.alllife.co.za

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