What is viral load?
For people living with HIV, viral load is the number of copies of the virus, or viral particles, in your blood. To treat HIV, you are given antiretroviral therapy (ART). This is a combination of medicines designed to keep down the level of virus in your blood.
What is a viral load test?
A viral load test tells you if your treatment is working. If you take your medicine as prescribed and you are on the right treatment, it is possible to achieve viral suppression. This means there are fewer than 50 copies of the virus per millilitre of blood. This is also described as an undetectable level of HIV in your blood. It is very good news because your treatment is working.
A test showing a level above 1000 copies/ml of blood indicates treatment failure. Either this is because you are not taking your medication correctly or that the regimen of treatment is no longer working. If the problem is with your treatment your doctor will prescribe a different regimen.
How often should you have a test?
The World Health Organization (WHO) strongly recommends that everyone on ART should have their HIV treatment monitored routinely. The first test should be done six months after starting treatment, and then every year thereafter.
The use of routine viral load testing is the only safe way to know if your ART is working as it should.
A viral load test is better than a CD4 count
A viral load test is far more likely to detect treatment failure early, and therefore facilitate remedial action quicker. Also a viral load test is significantly less likely to wrongly diagnose treatment failure. This helps to avoid the unnecessary switching of regimens. As a result of these two factors viral load tests result in better health outcomes.