Aim: To examine false-positive HIV DNA polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test results in children, and the potential implications for the paediatric HIV epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa.
Methods: A review was done of records over a 6-year period of children less than 18 months old at an HIV treatment site in South Africa, to evaluate those with an initial 'false'-positive HIV DNA PCR result, but later proven to be HIV-uninfected with HIV DNA PCR and/or quantitative HIV RNA PCR tests. We calculated the influence of changing HIV transmission rates on predictive values (PV) of HIV DNA PCR tests in a hypothetical population of all HIV-exposed infants over a 1-year period. (Positive PV: proportion of individuals with a positive test with disease; negative PV: proportion of individuals with negative test and no disease).
Results: Of 718 children, 40 with an initial positive HIV DNA PCR test were subsequently proven to be HIV-uninfected, resulting in a positive PV of 94.4%. Most (75%) uninfected children had PMTCT interventions and were asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic (77.5%). Calculations using a test specificity of 99.4%, as reported previously, show a decrease in positive PV using a single-test strategy from 98.6% at 30% HIV transmission rate, to 94.8% at 10% transmission, to 62.5% at 1% transmission. Reduction in test specificity further decreases positive PV at low transmission rates.
Conclusion: Decreasing mother-to-child HIV transmission rates reduce the positive predictive value of a single HIV DNA PCR test result, necessitating adaptations to diagnostic algorithms to avoid misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatment, especially with early initiation of antiretroviral therapy in asymptomatic infants.