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close this bookHIV in Pregnancy: A Review (UNAIDS, 1999, 67 p.)
close this folderSECTION A : HIV IN PREGNANCY
close this folderVoluntary HIV counselling and testing in pregnancy
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentTesting of antenatal women
View the documentCounselling before and after HIV testing in pregnancy
View the documentCounselling about pregnancy-related issues


Voluntary HIV counselling and testing in pregnancy

Testing of antenatal women

Pregnant women have been the target of many seroprevalence studies, as they provide an accessible cohort for HIV testing and a stable sampling frame19,23,22,310,311. While valuable information has been obtained on trends in the epidemic, the practice of testing in pregnancy has been criticized in the past, as one which stigmatizes women and which has not led to implementation of appropriate health strategies312,313.

With increasing knowledge about HIV and about mother-to-child transmission in particular, the focus has moved from the possible public health benefits of testing in pregnancy to the potential benefits for the individual woman314,315. This has re-emphasized the need for the provision of appropriate facilities for testing and counselling126,277,316,317,318,319,320,321,322,323,324. Voluntary testing of pregnant women is recommended and offered in many countries17,325,326,327. The introduction of testing programmes has increased the number of identified HIV positive women in many centres328. Despite this, identification of infected women may not be optimal if women do not access antenatal care, or where counselling and testing services are inadequate262,327,329,330,331,332,333.

Wherever possible, voluntary counselling and testing should be available to any pregnant woman who requests it and offered to all in areas of moderate or high prevalence. Routine testing of pregnant women without consent or without access to counselling is, however, an unacceptable practice and the disadvantages may negate any benefit obtained from knowing the HIV status of the women. These include a reluctance to utilize maternity services through fear of discrimination, denial of a positive diagnosis and stigmatization. Recent discussion about, and recommendations for mandatory testing of pregnant women or newborns have led to concern about the autonomy and rights of women315,329.

There are, however, a number of potential benefits to women of voluntary HIV testing prior to or during pregnancy. This is the case even in the absence of expensive interventions such as long-course antiretroviral therapy. These benefits include:

1 Where a woman is found to be infected, this knowledge can facilitate early counselling and treatment.

2 A diagnosis in the mother allows appropriate treatment and follow-up of her child.

3 Knowledge of her HIV status enables the woman to take decisions on continuation of the pregnancy and on future fertility.

4 Testing allows an opportunity to implement strategies to attempt to prevent transmission to the child.

5 Knowledge of HIV status enables the woman to take precautions to help prevent transmission to sexual partners.

6 Women diagnosed as HIV positive can tell their sexual partners and enable partners to be counselled and tested.

7 If the test result is negative, women can be guided in appropriate HIV prevention measures and risk reduction behaviour.

Balanced against these advantages are the possible disadvantages of HIV testing in pregnancy. These will vary from community to community, but reports have described an increase in the risk of violence against women; the possibility that the woman may be stigmatized within her community and by health workers; higher levels of anxiety and psychological sequelae; and concerns about the additional work load for maternity services334,335,336,337. Several studies have described the reluctance of some women to return for their test results337,338'339. In Nairobi, 5.9% of HIV-positive women reported violence related to the HIV test result. After changing to a policy of giving results out only on request, only 35% of women who had agreed to testing returned to ask for results337. In Kigali, 63.9% of positive women and 71.3% of HIV-negative women returned for test results and the only variable found to be associated with failure to return for counselling was a positive HIV test338.

Women should be encouraged to bring their sexual partner(s) for counselling and testing wherever possible. However, very few testing services have managed to achieve much success in this regard336,338. The best predictor of return for counselling by women in one US study was the time spent in counselling women and the counsellor's skills339. Voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) services for couples, preconceptual counselling and testing services not linked to antenatal care may increase testing uptake. However, it must be emphasized that, unless people have real choices for action once they have their test results (i.e. access to affordable services such as mother-to-child transmission preventive interventions, and care and support services), there is no good reason to take a test (see: Counselling and voluntary HIV testing for pregnant women in high HIV prevalence countries: Guidance for service providers (UNAIDS, May 1999))

A qualified person should take the blood specimen for an HIV test, using "universal precautions" against accidental transmission in all cases. These must include the safe disposal of needles and syringes. The type of tests used will depend upon local seroprevalence, policy and available facilities. In most cases blood specimens will be sent to the appropriate laboratory, but in some areas, dry blood spot testing may be an acceptable alternative. The first line test for HIV-antibodies is an enzyme-linked immuno-absorbent assay (ELISA) test, or a rapid test algorithm. Depending on local conditions, a confirmatory test with a second ELISA or rapid test using a different test kit, or a Western Blot should be performed. Any testing strategy must be undertaken with appropriate laboratory quality assessment340,341.

With increasingly sensitive and specific simple and "rapid" tests becoming available, on-site testing may become more feasible (see The importance of simple/rapid assays in HIV testing. WHO/UNAIDS recommendations; WER 1998, 73, 321-328). Recent reports of the use of "same-day" rapid test results in a rural hospital in a resource-poor setting and in an urban STI clinic have suggested that this is an acceptable and appropriate intervention342,343. Preliminary reports of the use of dual rapid tests for same day diagnosis in antenatal clinics suggest that this is an appropriate and acceptable way to provide testing in this setting. The major advantage is that early results enable more women to access antenatal strategies for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission.

Counselling before and after HIV testing in pregnancy

Pre- and post-test counselling are essential elements of the management of HIV in pregnancy. Pre-test counselling enables women and men to make informed decisions about an HIV test. Post-test counselling is an integral part of the management of the HIV-positive person, and provides an important opportunity for risk-reduction messages for those found to be HIV-negative.

Pre-test counselling

HIV testing should be accompanied by the provision of pre-test information and by informed consent to the test by the woman (see Table 5). Pre-test counselling implies explanation of both the test and the illness to the woman in a non-directive manner, and answering any questions prior to the performance of the test. The woman should be given time to decide on the test and, if unsure, should be counselled to take more time to think about the test and return at a later stage. Information about HIV testing can be incorporated into the health education and promotion activities of antenatal clinics and need not be too time consuming within maternity services319. Various models have been tried, including group counselling, video education, incorporating information on HIV into the first visit interview by midwives and the use of lay counsellors344,345. An appropriate model should be developed for the circumstances of each service, based on the prevalence and the level of prior awareness of the women in the community.

Table 5 : Pre-test counselling
[Based on guidelines from the Johannesburg Community AIDS Centre]

Take client to private setting for counselling
Assure the client of confidentiality
Explain or determine the reasons for HIV testing
Elicit information about the person's current and previous risk behaviour in a sensitive manner
Provide information about HIV and AIDS
Provide information about the HIV antibody test, including information about the "window period" of infection
Review the implications of a positive test result for the client
Discuss the person's possible responses to a positive test result
Discuss the implications of a negative test result
Provide information about test procedures
Obtain informed consent

Post-test counselling

The essential elements of post test counselling for HIV positive women are illustrated in Table 6. Counselling implies more than merely giving a positive result, and continued care and advice will be necessary as part of the management throughout the pregnancy and beyond344,346,347. The choice of appropriate counsellor will depend upon the circumstance of the practice or health service: counsellors ideally should have personal qualities, which equip them for the job, but many of the skills can be acquired during training. Wherever possible, counselling should be provided in the woman's home language and within the same cultural background. The involvement of peer counsellors - women who are themselves HIV-infected, who are able to counsel and to share their own experiences, fears and successes may be very valuable and should be encouraged. The integration of peer counsellors and support groups into the work of health services can be a very valuable addition to the available services.

Table 6 : Post-test counselling
[Based on guidelines from the Johannesburg Community AIDS Centre]

See the client personally to give result - no telephonic results, preferably not before a weekend
Give the result as soon as possible after the test is done
Inform the client of the test result
Deal with the feelings arising from a negative result and explore prevention of infection and the window period
Deal with the feelings arising from a positive result
Identify the person's immediate concerns
Discuss how the client plans to spend the next few hours and days
Identify what support the client has
Discuss who the client may want to tell about the result and risks to sexual partners
Identify what difficulties or problems the client foresees and how to deal with them
Encourage the client to ask questions
Provide information on a healthy lifestyle, medical follow-up, local support systems
Refer for follow-up care and counselling

The delay between taking the test and giving the result should be as short as possible, as the woman may be very concerned about the test and the implications of the result. Women who test positive should be encouraged to bring their male partner(s) for counselling and testing wherever possible.

Post-test counselling should also be provided for HIV-negative women, with a focus on providing information to enable them to avoid infection. This could be provided on a group basis, or by individual health workers, depending on the circumstances.

Counselling about pregnancy-related issues

There are several issues to be addressed when counselling HIV positive pregnant women, in addition to the general issues related to HIV infection. These include information about the interactions of HIV and pregnancy, options of termination of pregnancy, discussion about disclosure to the male partner, the risk of mother-to-child transmission and possible interventions to prevent this, other treatment options, infant feeding and HIV and future fertility. Some of these pregnancy-related issues are detailed in Table 7.

Table 7 : Issues in counselling HIV-positive pregnant women

The effect of pregnancy on HIV infection
The effect of HIV infection on pregnancy outcome: risks of adverse pregnancy events
The risk of transmission to the fetus during pregnancy, delivery and breastfeeding
Termination of pregnancy options
Treatment options during pregnancy
Interventions available to attempt to prevent mother-to-child transmission
Infant feeding options: the advantages and disadvantages of breastfeeding
Disclosure of results to male partners and/or to other significant family or community members: advantages and risks
The need for follow-up of both mother and child
Future fertility and contraceptive options

HIV-infected women should be given appropriate information to make informed decisions about the continuation of their pregnancy and future fertility348. Termination of pregnancy should be offered to HIV positive women; where this is legal. It should be clear to health care workers that offering termination should never be coercive and that all women, irrespective of their HIV status, have the right to determine the course of their reproductive life. Although there are some reports of increased rates of termination in HIV positive women, the majority of women will elect to continue with the pregnancy249,349,350,351. Knowledge of HIV infection had little effect on reproductive trends and the decision on future children in a number of studies248,352,353,354 although this has been seen more in developing countries than developed countries. However, a family planning intervention in Rwanda, providing access to and information about contraceptives, showed a reduction in subsequent pregnancies which was greater than in HIV-negative women355, and other studies have shown a reduction in the number of pregnancies in HIV positive women349,356,357,358.