Imagine this horrifying scenario: You’re pregnant, so you see your ob-gyn for a regular checkup—and she says you’re HIV positive. There’s no way that could be, right? After freaking out for two full weeks, it turns out it was all a false alarm. You panicked for nothing.
That’s exactly what happened to Jenn Morson of Maryland when she was carrying her second child. In a recent essay for ozy.com, she discusses how a routine gyno visit led to the most terrifying two weeks of her life.
Here’s what went down: After going in for a blood draw, Jenn’s doctor informed her that she had tested positive for HIV-2, which is typically only found in West Africa. (Yep, there’s more than one type of HIV virus.)
Despite the fact that this diagnosis was virtually impossible (Jenn and her husband were each other’s only sexual partners, she hadn’t been to West Africa, and she had tested negative for HIV a year earlier), her doc was adamant—the test had been run nine times, after all.
Jenn agonized and obsessed over the idea that she could have contracted the devastating disease through some freak contact in a public restroom or with a mosquito. (FYI, you can’t get it this way—HIV can only be transmitted by direct fluid contact from infected blood, semen, vaginal fluid, anal fluid, or breast milk.) Luckily, after a second set of lab tests, she learned that the original diagnosis was a false positive.
Apparently, Jenn’s pregnancy had caused a spike in her blood antibody count, which in turn led to the faulty test result. “With a second or subsequent child, a mother can develop antibodies against red blood cells,” says Allison Webel, R.N., Ph.D., co-author of Living a Healthy Life with HIV. That has been known to cause false positives on HIV screenings, says Webel.
And scares like this might be more common than you’d think. Webel says accuracy depends on the type of test that was used but notes that, in general, lab screenings are only accurate about 95 percent of the time. That’s a pretty big margin of error.
So what should you do if you ever find yourself in Jenn’s situation? “As much as possible, try to stay calm,” says Webel. “Ask for the lab records, and then insist on getting a new confirmatory test right away. This means giving a new blood sample and having the lab run a new test.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend getting a proviral DNA test to confirm an HIV-2 diagnosis and an FDA-approved nucleic acid test to confirm an HIV-1 diagnosis.