Approximately 1.1 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) today and an estimated 38,000 new HIV infections still occur in the United States each year (HIV.gov, 2020). HIV can be spread through blood, breast milk, vaginal fluid, rectal fluid and seminal fluid. The most common ways that HIV is spread is through sharing needles, mother to child (breast milk or while in utero) or unprotected sex. HIV attacks the body’s immune system and can advance into AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) if the virus is not managed. However, the spread of HIV can be prevented through barriers such as external and internal condoms, practicing abstinence, using new needles as well as through Antiretroviral Therapy (ART).
The treatment for HIV is called antiretroviral therapy (ART). ART involves taking a combination of HIV medicines every day. This is also sometimes referred to as “HIV Treatment Regime”. This regime of medications help lower a person’s HIV viral load, preventing them from passing it along to potential sexual partners. A viral load is the amount of HIV that can be measured in the blood of a person living with HIV. If the viral load is so low that it can’t be detected on a test, then the person is considered undetectable which means they cannot pass HIV on sexually.
Did you know? If someone is living with HIV and has achieved and maintained an undetectable *viral load, they cannot pass it on to a sexual partner!
Yes, that is correct! Many years of research have proven that an individual who has been diagnosed with HIV and has been using Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) as prescribed, cannot transmit the virus sexually.
This discovery is relatively new and has been coined as an awareness campaign called U=U. Undetectable Equals Untransmittable (U=U) means that people living with HIV who achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load by taking antiretroviral therapy daily as prescribed cannot sexually transmit the virus to others. In recent years, an overwhelming amount of clinical evidence has established that U=U is scientifically sound. U=U opens up social and reproductive choices for people living with HIV that previously had many barriers, making it a discovery that can be very impactful for many people living with HIV today.
This is particularly important as HIV has been heavily stigmatized for many years. HIV has had a disproportionate impact on ethnic minority populations as well as men who have sex with men. Unfortunately, stigma surrounding sexual orientation, sex and drug use is common when discussing HIV outside of medical circles. The U=U campaign advocates that people living with HIV are not “vectors” or people to fear. For many people living with HIV, U=U is empowering and provides hope that they have the autonomy to live their healthiest and best life possible with the ones they love. With less stigma and more understanding, the world just might see HIV become a thing of the past.
Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions:
How does someone know if their viral loads are undetected?
Access to testing and an established relationship with a health care provider are essential. The provider will be able to conduct regular testing to determine viral loads and discuss ways to stay healthy and safe while living with HIV.
Does this mean, individuals who have an undetectable status do not have to use condoms during sex?
It’s their decision! However, it’s important to have regular, candid, and honest conversations about sexual health and the risks of unprotected sex with sexual partners. It’s always best practice to use barrier methods such as condoms or dental dams each and every time individuals have sex. It’s expected that individuals living with HIV (who want to maintain an undetectable status) should continue ART therapy, get tested every 3 months, and encourage their partners to take PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis).
What is PrEP?
Pre-exposure prophylaxis is an HIV prevention method that allows individuals who do not have HIV to reduce their risk of developing HIV if they believe they may be exposed to the virus. The PrEP medication is highly effective at preventing HIV, and using PrEP in addition to barrier methods such as condoms or dental dams during sex can significantly reduce their chances of developing HIV.