By Nina Hasen, Vice President, HIV and Tuberculosis, PSI
This week, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a policy brief with a long name and a revolutionary message. The brief, titled “The Role of HIV Viral Suppression in Improving Individual Health and Reducing Transmission,” declares that people living with HIV with an undetectable viral load have Zero Risk of transmitting the virus through sex as long as they continue to take their treatment medication as prescribed.
Zero Risk of passing on HIV as long as you’re on treatment and have an undetectable viral load.
What does that mean?
Ever since we first learned that a virus causes AIDS and that virus could be transmitted through sex, a positive HIV test has meant so much more than just a diagnosis. It has left millions worried about making their loved ones sick, being excluded from love and romance, and stigmatized in the most devastating ways. HIV didn’t just make people sick; it took away their hopes of achieving life goals most of us take for granted: falling in love, starting a family, being a productive member of society, and growing old.
Making antiretroviral treatment widely available should have changed all that. We have known since 2011 that treatment not only returns people living with HIV to full health but it also prevents transmission of the virus through sex and has all but eliminated transmission through pregnancy and breastfeeding. But because people need tests to know that their viral load has become undetectable, and these tests have been hard to scale, millions of people on treatment don’t know about their viral load. Very few people living with HIV have been told this incredibly good news.
That will change.
The brief makes clear that even the simplest tools for collecting a sample (a drop of blood on a paper card) are sufficient to provide an “undetectable” result. And thanks to donors like the Gates Foundation and PEPFAR, we also have simple tools to help healthcare workers explain Zero Risk to their patients. Now people living with HIV all over the world can move beyond surviving to thriving, knowing that their treatment isn’t just keeping them alive; it’s protecting the people they love.
This only happens if we join forces to supercharge our viral load testing and communication efforts. We need governments around the world to commit to scaling viral load testing and telling their citizens about Zero Risk. We need everyone to know that a person on HIV treatment with an undetectable viral load, cannot pass the virus on to their sexual partners.
PSI proudly stands with people living with HIV and the organizations they have built to drive this change, including partners like MANET+ in Malawi and ZNNP+ in Zimbabwe. We know that people living with HIV are the most important leaders of change in the HIV response. We commit to working through our global network to support their work and spread the word about Zero Risk, and to join their voices in asking governments to fully implement this bold new policy from WHO.
But before the work begins, let us pause and take a moment to celebrate: Zero Risk. Now THAT’s saying something!