OPINION: Stop doubting the evidence – people living with HIV and on effective treatment cannot pass it on

by Ian Green | Terrence Higgins Trust
Wednesday, 8 May 2019 11:17 GMT

Health workers and volunteers form a human ribbon to commemorate World AIDS day in San Salvador, El Salvador, December 1, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

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People living with HIV still have to face stigma due to people who refuse to believe the scientifically proven power of modern day effective treatment

Ian Green is the chief executive of Terrence Higgins Trust, the UK’s leading HIV and sexual health charity,

When you’re first diagnosed with HIV there’s usually a plethora of emotions and questions running through your mind – and that was certainly the case for me. However, when you start thinking about your future relationships only one question comes to mind: “Am I a risk to others?”

Well to answer that question – no, you’re not a risk to others, if you’re on effective HIV treatment that is. The final part of the PARTNER study, which was published in The Lancet last week, has proven definitively that people living with HIV and on effective medication cannot pass on the virus to others, with or without a condom. That’s not won’t or don’t, but can’t pass it on.

The study took place over eight years and involved nearly 1,000 couples where one is living with HIV and on effective treatment and the other is HIV negative. The couples had sex nearly 80,000 times without a condom and there were zero HIV transmissions.

This has led the lead researcher Professor Alison Rodgers to say “this very much puts this issue to rest”. Which means: stop doubting the evidence, this is true.

But this isn’t our first time hearing this message and it isn’t new for many of us living with HIV. In fact, at Terrence Higgins Trust we launched out “Can’t Pass It On” campaign back in 2017 to promote these facts. That’s because we knew then and know now that we have a responsibility to make sure everyone was aware of the facts surrounding HIV.

But that wasn’t all we did. We decided to take the campaign on the road, and for the past two years we have been chanting the Can’t Pass It On message at some of the UK’s most popular Pride events. We also continue to work with communities, media, policymakers and community groups to get this message across to as many people as possible.

This information has an incredible impact on HIV stigma and out-of-date beliefs about the virus have a huge negative impact on the lives, mental health and wellbeing of people living with HIV. For example, when I had an operation on my wrist a while back, I informed the doctor that I was HIV positive and undetectable', as I always do. To my surprise my blood test forms had the words “HIGH RISK” stamped on them.

When taken correctly, HIV treatment reduces the amount of virus in the blood. When the virus is reduced to extremely low levels to the point where a laboratory test cannot pick it up, it cannot be passed on. So no, I am not a high risk

However, unfortunately due to the misconceptions and myths that surround HIV many people still believe this not to be true. Our YouGov survey of our 2,000 adults revealed that just 10 percent of people believe that people on effective treatment can’t pass HIV on.

As someone living with HIV, the fact that so many people living with HIV will still have to face stigma and discrimination due to people who refuse to believe the scientifically proven power of modern day effective treatment is nothing short of heart breaking. Which is why the media coverage of this game-changing message makes me so happy, both personally and professionally.

By helping to share the message and ensuring that people know the facts about HIV and effective treatment, we hope to tackle stigma and remove the fear that often surrounds the virus.