Clinical trials over the years have shown that HIV-positive people on anti-retroviral therapy (ART) with an undetectable viral load cannot sexually transmit the virus to an HIV-negative person. This important result was announced unequivocally in July at the Ninth International Aids Society Conference and it is now the official policy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Hundreds of medical professionals and organizations have committed to the undetectable=untransmittable (U=U) pledge. The CDC accepting this is a fantastic step forward and will help challenge the stigma HIV-positive people still face today.
“Across three different studies, including thousands of couples and many thousand acts of sex without a condom or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), no HIV transmissions to an HIV-negative partner were observed when the HIV-positive person was virally suppressed,” read the CDC Dear Colleague letter on HIV/AIDS prevention. “This means that people who take ART daily as prescribed and achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load have effectively no risk of sexually transmitting the virus to an HIV-negative partner.”
The CDC statement also added an unfortunate “however“. Institutions and ignorance are still stopping people from getting the care and treatment they need. They noted the hurdles many have to face to get access to ART and every single one is infuriating: inadequate health systems, poverty, racism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and criminalization.
“Educating the general population about U=U has the potential to put a massive dent in the stigma that’s followed people living with HIV for the last thirty years. Once people know you’re not-infectious they’re more able to see past the virus and see the person,” HIV Campaigner Tom Hayes told IFLScience. “More and more public bodies are acknowledging and backing the U=U (#uequalsu on social media) message, giving it more credibility. What we need now is a public information campaign across all forms of media to bring the general public up to date. U=U changes everything.”
ART gets rid of any actively replicating HIV, but it is possible for HIV to be latent and in hiding. This is why ART is a continuous treatment and not a one-off. Recent breakthroughs suggest a way to completely eradicate the virus, but it is still very early days.
Now more than ever it is important to remember that HIV is a manageable disease. Most of the struggle HIV-positive people face comes from being stigmatized due to other people’s misconceptions. It is important to remain informed, support the research, and fight the ignorance that surrounds HIV. As the Prevention Access campaign, who spearheaded U=U, says: “Science not Stigma!”