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‘Negligible’ HIV risk from people in treatment, new campaign proclaims

Vancouver’s Health Initiative for Men has endorsed an international campaign to communicate the latest HIV research. The results may surprise you.

Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and Physician Program Director for HIV/AIDS at Providence Health Care, has signed onto an international "consensus statement" based on the latest transmission research.

Jennifer Gauthier / Metro Order this photo

Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and Physician Program Director for HIV/AIDS at Providence Health Care, has signed onto an international "consensus statement" based on the latest transmission research.

“Hey guys!” proclaimed a recent Facebook post from the Health Initiative for Men (HIM). “Well, we're making it official: U=U! … UNDETECTABLE=UNINFECTIOUS!”

The big news unveiled by the Vancouver gay men’s health organization may come as a surprise to anyone unfamiliar with the latest studies into how HIV is transmitted. But it has major implications, far beyond the LGBTQ community to anyone concerned about the virus.

This month, HIM signed onto an international “consensus statement” based on evidence that “individuals with undetectable viral loads do not transmit HIV regardless of the kinds of sex they're having or the use of additional prevention methods like condoms or (pre-exposure prophylaxis),” HIM stated in its post explaining the campaign.

PrEP — the use of antiretroviral drugs by someone without HIV to prevent transmission — which has been proven to reduce the risk of contracting the virus.

“The evidence has been coming in for a while, but we're joining others in saying it loud and clear,” HIM stated in the post. “Treatment as Prevention works, and there's no longer any doubt about it.”

The post bridges B.C. residents with an international Prevention Access Campaign effort to undercut the stigma and fear that still surrounds people living with HIV/AIDS.

According to the Prevention Access Campaign, which spearheaded the “consensus statement” endorsed by HIM and many other organizations, “Much of the messaging about HIV transmission risk is based on outdated research and is influenced by agency or funding restraints and politics which perpetuate sex-negativity, HIV-related stigma and discrimination.”

One of the signatories to the global consensus letter is Vancouver’s own Dr. Julio Montaner, who directs the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and is the Physician Program Director for HIV/AIDS at Providence Health Care.

“We have been able to show that if you are adequately treated and you are a pregnant woman, your child will not be born with HIV,” Dr. Montaner told Metro in a phone interview, “and that if you have a sex partner who is HIV-positive on antiretroviral therapy, your partner would be greatly protected even more so that using condoms.”

But while he acknowledged the global campaign — based on advances in HIV treatments which can render the virus ineffective — could “greatly contribute to diminishing stigma associated with HIV,” his endorsement came with some important caveats.

“Antiretroviral therapy is only effective if it’s taken properly,” he cautioned. “Can it fail? Of course it can fail, and you cannot check your viral load at every moment.”

Additionally, he warned, HIV therapies don’t prevent other sexually transmitted illnesses such as HPV or syphilis — which has spiked in B.C. recently — nor prevent pregnancy.

“People need to be aware this is just one element of a complex situation,” Montaner explained. “But from a narrow HIV perspective, I am delighted to say that antiretroviral therapy has prevented AIDS … and it has normalized the reproductive and sexual life of people infected with HIV.

“At end of day, stigma is all about fear. We have a lot of respect for the virus, believe me I do, but fear is inappropriate.”

For more information on the Health Initiative for Men, visit checkhimout.ca. The Prevention Access Campaign’s international consensus statement can be found online.

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