A major new survey by Terrence Higgins Trust in the UK has shown that only 9% of the British public are aware of this fact, which has been evidenced by scientific research.
Meanwhile around one in three (32%) adults would feel uncomfortable giving first aid to someone living with HIV who is on effective treatment, according to the YouGov survey of 2,022 adults.
And nearly 40% of the public said they would be uncomfortable going on a date with someone living with HIV who is on effective treatment.
In response, Terrence Higgins Trust has launched a campaign to dispel the misconceptions and myths that continue to prevail around HIV, despite medical advances.
Dr Michael Brady, Medical Director of Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “We have a responsibility to share up-to-date scientific facts about HIV, and this must now include the fact that people on effective HIV treatment are not infectious. This is one of the biggest developments in our knowledge of HIV since effective antiretroviral therapy was first introduced in 1996.”
Effective HIV treatment means that the treatment has suppressed the amount of virus in the blood to undetectable levels (this is known as having an ‘undetectable viral load’). In the UK this is usually classed as below 20 copies of HIV per ml of blood. It can take up to six months from starting treatment to become ‘undetectable’.
Over 90% of people currently receiving care for HIV have an undetectable viral load, and are therefore uninfectious.
Meanwhile, one in seven people living with HIV in the UK are not aware they have it and are therefore missing out on treatment that could enable them to live healthy lives, and which would prevent them passing on HIV.
Over the past two decades, evidence has been building to indicate that the risk of HIV transmission is mostly affected by ‘viral load’, the amount of the virus in someone’s bloodstream.
As early as 2001, studies from sub-Saharan Africa demonstrated that, as the viral load gets lower, transmission is less and less likely.
In 2008, the Swiss National AIDS Commission issued what was subsequently to be known as the Swiss Statement, stating that ‘an HIV-infected person on antiretroviral therapy with completely suppressed viraemia (“effective ART”) is not sexually infectious, i.e. cannot transmit HIV through sexual contact.’ However several caveats were applied.
But in July last year, the landmark PARTNER study finally provided robust evidence to show that people with an ‘undetectable’ viral load cannot pass on the virus.
The PARTNER study looked at people on treatment who had viral loads below 200 copies per ml. Out of 58,000 instances of condomless sex recorded in the study, where one partner was HIV positive and on effective treatment, and the other was HIV negative, there were zero HIV transmissions.
Dr Brady said: “The PARTNER study’s findings were pivotal. But one year on, the fact that people on successful HIV treatment can’t pass it on has yet to become common knowledge in the health and social care sectors, let alone the general public.
“We still hear worrying stories about ‘biohazard’ stickers being put on people’s hospital doors, of elderly people living with HIV being turned away from care homes, and from dentists ‘double gloving’ to treat patients who are HIV positive.
“This reflects out-of-date knowledge of HIV transmission and only serves to create barriers that stop people testing and adhering to treatment, which in turn, perpetuates the HIV epidemic.
“We can’t wait any longer to bring people up to date on this. It is time to listen to science, not stigma.”
Trevor Banthorpe, who is living with HIV and took part in the PARTNER study with his fiancé Javier, said: “Being undetectable means to me, firstly, that my virus is under control and I’m healthy, but as important to me is also the knowledge that I can’t pass HIV onto Javier. That is a huge relief. Getting this news out there is a really important way to challenge the stigma around HIV. It’s been a long time since we’ve had such a positive message.”
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