A New Way to Protect Yourself from HIV
There are currently 25,000 people living with HIV in Australia, most of them gay and bisexual men. Until recently, condoms were the most effective way of protecting yourself from HIV. However, during the last decade, condoms have slowly become less popular in the gay community. Different methods are now being used to stop HIV from being passed on.
Over the past five years, a drug known as PrEP has become very popular in developed countries such as Australia, especially among gay and bisexual men. PrEP is a daily pill taken by HIV-negative people which stops them from contracting HIV. It has been called the “oral contraceptive” for HIV. More than 100,000 people are now using PrEP worldwide.
Condoms and PrEP allow HIV-negative people to protect themselves from HIV, however, there is another form of protection which gives control to HIV-positive people. It is known as having an undetectable viral load, and we now know it is totally effective.
Having an undetectable viral load, or UVL, is when an HIV-positive person takes anti-HIV drugs every day to reduce the amount of HIV present in their blood, so much that the virus cannot be detected by standard tests. Although this does not cure HIV, HIV-positive people with a UVL live long and healthy lives. We have also known for quite some time that having a UVL might reduce the chance of passing on HIV to a sexual partner. This has now been confirmed by a revolutionary Australian study.
Results from the Opposites Attract study were recently presented at the International AIDS Society conference, which took place in Paris last month. The study recruited 343 gay couples where one partner was HIV-positive and the other was HIV-negative. The couples were followed for more than one-and-a-half years and were asked to report their sexual activity. More than 17,000 acts of anal sex without a condom took place between the couples during the study. There was not a single record of HIV being passed on from the HIV-positive partner to the HIV-negative partner.
These exciting results show that having a UVL is just as effective as using condoms or taking PrEP for stopping HIV transmission. To put this into perspective, this means you are less likely to get HIV from having condomless sex with an HIV-positive person with a UVL, than with someone who does not know their HIV status.
Changing behaviour, changing attitudes
There is still a significant amount of stigma surrounding HIV in Australia. Gay men living with HIV commonly report being victims of discrimination and stigma in many aspects of their lives. People who are at most risk of HIV (gay and bisexual men, transgender people, people who inject drugs and sex workers) often face the most inequity when it comes to accessing health care, such as HIV testing and treatment. For the first time, the Victorian government has listed the importance of reducing HIV stigma and discrimination in eliminating HIV in its Victorian HIV Strategy for 2017-2020.
HIV advocates hope that studies such as the Opposites Attract study will help educate the gay community on how having a UVL lowers the risk of passing on HIV. A better understanding of different forms of HIV protection will help reduce the stigma around HIV, and will contribute to the general wellbeing of HIV-positive people in the community. Many HIV health groups now consider having sex with someone with a UVL a form of protected sex.
Choice is power
Now more than ever, gay men are able to choose the way they protect themselves and their partners from HIV. Whether it is using condoms, taking PrEP or having a UVL, giving people a choice is extremely important; more choices means more people protecting themselves. With more forms of protected sex, greater education among the gay community, and a focus on removing stigma and discrimination, we are well on our way to completely eliminating HIV in Australia.