CD4 and viral load are two of the key tests doctors use to manage HIV. But the tests themselves, what they measure, and how doctors use them are quite different. Below is a brief overview of how the two tests work.
CD4 tests measure the number of CD4 T-cells in the blood to gauge the strength of the immune system in the presence of HIV infection. CD4 is an excellent test in this respect and has been the primary indicator doctors have used to monitor the overall condition of the patient’s immune system. It is most useful in determining when an untreated patient needs to begin taking ARVs. The test is usually simple to perform and relatively cheap to administer which has lead to its widespread use.
The test has two main limitations with regard to HIV management. First, there are many factors, other than HIV activity, that can affect the amount of CD4 T-cells present in the blood at any given time. So the doctor cannot be sure if the CD4 value is caused by HIV activity or other factors. Second, it can take up to 6 months for HIV activity to be reflected in the CD4 count.
While CD4 measures the body’s reaction to the virus, the viral load test measures the number of virus particles in the blood directly. A low viral load indicates that HIV is not actively reproducing and that the immediate risk of disease progression is low. A high viral load means the virus is active and the infection will progress. The viral load test is a more reliable indicator of viral activity than the CD4 test and, as such, a more reliable indicator of disease progression. It is the most useful tool in determining whether or not antiretroviral drugs are working since treatment failure is first manifested by a rise in viral load. In virtually all cases, this rise in viral load occurs within a month or two of the cause of treatment failure.
Historically, the viral load test has had one main drawback: While a mainstay of treatment in developed nations, it has been more difficult to perform in resource-limited settings. That’s because tests introduced in the mid 1990’s are developed around platforms that measure RNA. These tests are made with delicate equipment and require laboratory conditions that are uncommon in resource-limited clinics. The introduction of the world’s first viral load test that measured reverse transcriptase (RT) in 2002 changed all that. The RT platform now provides equivalent results with simple equipment and lower demands on the laboratory running the test.