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Ask the Experts

Question:

A little over 3 months ago I was a victim of sexual assault. I was drugged unknowingly and can remember everything clearly except for 4 hours where the drug completely knocked me out.

Doctors and the rape crisis hotlines I have called have all said that due to being drugged, there is no way to actually know if I was raped or not. This is driving me crazy and a big part of the anxiety I am feeling is that I am scared that I could have contracted HIV.

Three weeks after the incident I went and got tested, it was negative. I have gone multiple times since.

One test site said I would know my HIV status for sure in 3 months, another said it could be up to a year before I would know for sure. I am getting mixed information from all different sources.

I normally would be more patient, but my fiance is currently deployed. This has all been going on with him away (which has been extremely difficult). He gets back before I hit the 6 month mark. I need to know because this could potentially affect his health too.

Answered by: Robert Remien

If a person has had a single (possible) sexual exposure to HIV and continued to test HIV-negative for over two months, the chances are very low at this point that HIV infection occurred (though you should also be checked for other sexually transmitted infections.) However, it is true that there is a “window” period between initial HIV infection and the ability of blood tests to identify the HIV antibody (an antibody test is the standard test for HIV). During this early period of infection (called “acute HIV infection”) it is possible for doctors to check directly for the presence of the virus itself. If you are still concerned, you could consider such a test.

However, to repeat, the antibody test has become increasingly sensitive, so that in most cases, this standard test will be able to tell if HIV infection has occurred within a couple of months after infection.

It is also important for people who are victims of sexual assault – or who experience any incident of unprotected sex – to know that they can receive treatment to prevent HIV infection up to 72 hours after the incident (the sooner the better). This is called “post-exposure prophylaxis” (PEP) and has shown a high rate of success in preventing infection from becoming established.

It is also important to know that it is during the first several weeks of HIV infection (known as the “acute” stage), that individuals are themselves the most likely to transmit HIV infection, so practicing safer sex during this period is crucial.

Beyond the issue of HIV, you have had a very traumatizing experience and it is critical that you receive social and psychological support, including from your fiancé. An experience of sexual assault may change how you relate to your fiancé, to your sexuality, and indeed to your life overall. It is essential that you and your fiancé be able to discuss this event and the impact it is having on you; a professional counselor or physician should be able to help with this.