End of Aids Epidemic In Sight After Groundbreaking New DiscoveryMay 6, 2019
HIV has always been an illusive disease with devastating consequences and even Western medicine has been unable to elevate it entirely. However, a breakthrough discovery has meant that HIV might wiped out once and for all.
The eight-year study revealed that men suffering with HIV had no risk of infecting their partner if they were taking antiretroviral drugs. What this means is that if everyone with HIV was being treated with these drugs, there would be no more infections from unprotected sex. A mega breakthrough discovery to say the least.
The study involved 1,000 male couples in Europe. In each couple, one HIV positive partner was put on the treatment and the results showed that there were no cases of infection to the other partner through unprotected sex. 15 men were infected with the disease by the end of the study, but DNA testing showed that this was due to sex with someone who wasn’t their partner and consequently, wasn’t on the treatment. That aside, if all HIV positive individuals were on treatment, there would be no more infections at all.
The study was published in the Lancet medical journal; Professor Alison Rodger from University College London was elated with the findings of the study. “It’s brilliant – fantastic. This very much puts this issue to bed.” She went on to say, “Our findings provide conclusive evidence for gay men that the risk of HIV transmission with suppressive ART [antiretroviral therapy] is zero. Our findings support the message of the international U=U campaign that an undetectable viral load makes HIV untransmittable.” Further tests showed that the drug also protects partners in heterosexual relationships. And this discovery goes much further than protecting people on a physical level. Rodger elaborated, saying, “This powerful message can help end the HIV pandemic by preventing HIV transmission, and tackling the stigma and discrimination that many people with HIV face.”
It’s now vital that those with HIV are diagnosed and have access to the treatment. Rodger reiterated the importance of this, saying, “Increased efforts must now focus on wider dissemination of this powerful message and ensuring that all HIV-positive people have access to testing, effective treatment, adherence support and linkage to care to help maintain an undetectable viral load.” As of now, researchers don’t know how many people need treatment.
Back in 2017, there were a staggering 40 million people living with HIV and just half of them were on antiretroviral treatment. In the UK, there were approximately 101,600 people who were HIV positive and over 7,000 of these people had no idea they had it. So, how do you treat people who haven’t even been tested?
It’s no easy task, that’s for sure. Myron S Cohen spoke on behalf of the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, encouraging a global movement to get everyone tested and treated for HIV. However, the stigma surrounding men in homosexual relationships has proved a difficult hurdle to overcome. “It is not always easy for people to get tested for HIV or find access to care,” Cohen said. “In addition, fear, stigma, homophobia and other adverse social forces continue to compromise HIV treatment.”
It’s also important to diagnose it before it’s too late; 43% of cases are discovered later on in the disease. Deborah Gold, the chief executive of the National Aids Trust has revealed that late diagnoses can be fatal; “If we don’t reduce late diagnosis, there will always be those who are not aware of their HIV status and who therefore cannot access treatment,”
But getting people diagnosed in time this has also thrown up some difficulties. “Diagnosis of HIV infection is difficult in the early stages of infection when transmission is very efficient,” Cohen explained, “and this limitation also compromises the treatment as prevention strategy.” This means that people should be taking HIV tests regularly to minimise the risk of infection. The decrease in new diagnoses (a sharp drop was observed from 2005 onwards) shows that people aren’t getting tested. Gold also suggested that this might be due to the prejudice surrounding HIV, but hopefully this study will be successful in “breaking down some of the barriers to testing in communities where there is still a lot of stigma around HIV.
These findings are so important in many ways. Dr Michael Brady, medical director of Terrence Higgins Trust put it simply; “It is impossible to overstate the importance of these findings.” He went on to say, “The Partner study has given us the confidence to say, without doubt, that people living with HIV who are on effective treatment cannot pass the virus on to their sexual partners. This has incredible impact on the lives of people living with HIV and is a powerful message to address HIV-related stigma.”
The researchers received their fair share of praise. Bruce Richman, founding executive director of the Prevention Access Campaign said the study “has for ever changed what it means to live and love with HIV around the world.” Cohen added that these drugs are fundamentally more reliable and cheaper for those suffering with the disease. “The results … provide yet one more catalyst for a universal test-and-treat strategy to provide the full benefits of antiretroviral drugs. This and other strategies continue to push us toward the end of Aids,” he concluded.
This is Alex Sparrowhawk who is 34 and has been living with HIV for almost a decade. When he was diagnosed HIV positive, his first thoughts were about how it might effect his career as a financial analyst and if it might ruin future relationships.
He revealed that, “I was single at the time, just navigating what to do – when to tell people and how to talk to people was really difficult.” He began taking a course of antiretroviral pills straight away and just a few months later, the disease was impossible to detect. For the past nine years he hasn’t been able to infect any of his partners. Incredible results! However, it wasn’t always so simple and Alex revealed that his condition had caused him immense stress before treatment began. He was always worried about infecting his partner of six years. “You’d be told it was very unlikely, or that it was only possible under certain circumstances like having an STI,” he explained. “But you’re constantly worried about these caveats and you go through this worry together.
After the successful treatment, he described it as a “huge weight off your shoulders.” He hopes it changes public perception about HIV. “A lot of stigma is driven by fear of being exposed to HIV,” he mused. “People still think you can get it from kissing and casual contact. If more people knew about this study, this would change.”
So there you have it – the possible end to one of life’s most crippling conditions. With it will, hopefully, come more awareness and acceptance for those who feel like they have to suffer alone.
Photo credits: horizon-magazine.eu, Nicholas Nixon, Getty Images.