The HIV virus has long been thought to be able to be transmitted via unprotected sex even if the afflicted person undergoes a full treatment course for the disease. Yet on May 3, it was reported that a revolutionary new study has shown that the risk of passing on HIV has been proven to be completely eliminated when treated by effective drugs. This is excellent news, and could lead to a major change in not only how frequently HIV is spread, but the future of the disease's existence overall.
The study, published in medical journal The Lancet, involved nearly a thousand gay male couples over the course of eight years. During that time, one partner infected with HIV took antiretroviral therapy (ART), and the couples had sex regularly without a condom. Over the course of eight years, only 15 men were infected by HIV, and testing proved that the virus' transmission in those cases was actually caused by one partner sleeping with someone not involved in the study.
Ultimately, the experiment saw no new cases of transmission to the HIV-negative partner in each couple, proving that by using the correct cocktail of medications, an infected person can suppress their HIV virus to the point where it's undetectable during testing and essentially incapable of being transmitted to someone else.
"What this study really shows is that risk of transmission is zero with ART treatment and that's quite new and important," said University College London's professor Alison Rodger, who helped lead the research, in a statement.
CNN reports that this groundbreaking study follows an earlier one conducted by professor Myron S. Cohen at the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, where heterosexual couples with one HIV-positive partner were observed with similarly conclusive results. "The question has been definitively answered, there is no need for further research. It's not often we get to say that," said Rodger.
Indeed, the implications of this study — which implies that if anyone infected by HIV could access the medications needed to suppress the virus in its early stages, transmission around the world could be effectively slowed or even, eventually, eradicated — are massive and unprecedented.
Yet while this could absolutely change the landscape of HIV infection and subsequent treatment as we know it, the real challenge still lies ahead, in the form of ensuring medications and treatment plans get into the hands of those who need them. Making sure people have access to diagnoses and meds is an initiative that's already part of President Donald Trump's plan to eliminate the spread of HIV in the next decade, but there's still significant work to be done.
"The results of the study 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," said Cohen.
In the decades since the discovery of HIV, managing and living with the disease has become far less daunting, thanks to cheaper, more reliable, and more effective drugs. And now, with these new developments, it's become even easier to look toward a potentially HIV-free future.