Artwork created by a patient at the Partnership Comprehensive Care Practice
There was a time when an HIV diagnosis was believed to be a death sentence. However, with the advancement of medication over the years, that is no longer the case. Further, recent studies have found the next best thing to a cure: U=U.
What does U=U mean? U=U stands for "Undetectable = Untransmittable." A person with HIV who is on effective treatment will see their level of HIV reduced to undetectable levels in the blood. If a person continues to take their medications every day and maintains an undetectable viral load, that person is incapable of transmitting HIV to others.
"U=U is important," explains Drexel infectious disease specialist, Amy Althoff, MD, "because it is a message of hope that is empowering to people living with HIV. It means people living with HIV can have a relationship without the fear of transmission."
According to the Prevention Access Campaign, U=U:
- Improves the lives of people living with HIV by dramatically reducing both the shame that some feel and the fear of sexual transmission. It also opens up possibilities for conceiving children without alternative means of insemination.
- Dismantles HIV stigma on the community, clinical and personal level.
- Encourages people living with HIV to start and stay on treatment, which keeps them and their partners healthy.
- Strengthens advocacy efforts for universal access to treatment, care and diagnostics to save lives and brings us closer to ending the epidemic.
Dr. Althoff says, "U=U promotes access to treatment for all so that all people with HIV can get the care they need, and we can soon reach the goal of zero new infections."
The impact of this on patients' lives has been huge. "When patients mention their stress over disclosing their status, preventing transmission to their partner, feeling isolated or wanting children, I give them a U=U brochure and discuss the campaign with them," explains Dr. Althoff. "I often immediately feel the mood in the room lighten. I feel so privileged to be able to share the strong research work that has been done and provide hope."
There are times when a person who is undetectable should continue to use protection for sex. "HIV medications only treat HIV, not other sexually-transmitted infections (STI's), and these medications do not prevent pregnancy," says Dr. Althoff. "If a patient has multiple partners, or if one is worried about STI's or pregnancy, he or she should use a condom. In addition, HIV-negative partners may choose to use PReP to prevent acquiring HIV if they have more than one sexual partner or if they are unsure of a partner's HIV status."
Despite medical advancements, myths surrounding HIV still persist, but U=U is hoping to change that. "Fear of transmission has been ingrained into the minds of both patients and providers for decades," says Dr. Althoff. "We now have the science to dispel these fears, but for risk-averse HIV providers, it will take time for everyone to fully adopt it into their practice. However, I hope that this time is very short, so that people living with HIV can embrace the full lives that they deserve to live now."
Drexel Medicine's Partnership Comprehensive Care Practice fully promotes the U=U campaign. To learn more about U=U, visit www.preventionaccess.org.