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Objective: To determine the sensitivity of 33 currently available and seven earlier tests for the detection of HIV or HIV antibody in primary HIV-1 infection, to estimate the duration of the 'window period' and the influence of early initiated antiretroviral treatment (ART).

Design: A prospective cohort study of 38 patients with primary HIV-1 infection. ART was initiated at a median time of 13 (range 0-23) days after the onset of symptoms in 10 patients.

Main outcome measures: The time from infection to onset of symptoms and from onset of symptoms to the appearance of HIV antibody as measured by 36 different tests, and the start and duration of viraemia, as detected by four different tests.

Results: The illness appeared 13-15 days after infection in 12 of 15 determinable cases, and seroconversion was detected within 1-2 weeks after the onset of illness by 27 of 30 currently available tests for HIV antibody, in contrast to the 2-7 weeks or more needed by the old tests. HIV RNA appeared during the week preceding the onset of illness and was detected in all subsequent samples, except when ART had been initiated, which also induced a delay of the antibody response.

Conclusion: Many tests for HIV or HIV antibody can now be employed for an early confirmation of primary HIV infection (PHI). Currently available screening tests proved much more sensitive than older tests, and seroconversion was usually detected within one month after infection. Consequently, in Sweden we now recommend only 3 months of follow-up after most cases of HIV exposure.

(C) 2000 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.