Despite widespread evidence that HIV patients who receive effective treatment cannot pass the virus on to others, few people in the UK are aware of this fact. This means that people living with HIV remain stigmatised.
While no cure exists at present for HIV, vaccines are still in the process of being tested. Nevertheless, antiretroviral therapy (ART) today allows patients to lead longer, healthier lives than ever before.
The treatment, which consists of a combination of antiretroviral drugs, works by preventing HIV from multiplying in the body, stopping its progression.
Effective ART means that the treatment has suppressed the amount of virus in the blood to undetectable levels (this is known as having an undetectable viral load).
Along with prevention, ART is thought to have saved 7.8 million lives over the last 15 years.
Many people remain unaware of these findings, as a YouGov survey commissioned by sexual health and HIV charity Terrence Higgins Trust finds. The survey was conducted online at the beginning of June among 2,022 adults representative of the whole British population.
The results indicate that 9% of Britons are not aware that HIV positive people with an undetectable viral load cannot pass on the virus. This may explain a number of negative attitudes towards people living with HIV, which the survey also uncovered.
About one in three survey participants responded that they would feel uncomfortable giving first aid to someone living with HIV and on effective treatment. An even greater number - nearly 40% of the respondents - said they would be uncomfortable going on a date with someone living with HIV who is on effective treatment.
No chance of transmission
Many studies have been published suggesting that patients who take their medication as prescribed by doctors have a near zero chance of transmitting the virus.
Scientists have shown that the risk of HIV transmission is mostly affected by 'viral load', the amount of the virus in someone's bloodstream. As early as 2001, studies from Sub-Saharan Africa demonstrated that as people take ART and as their viral load gets lower transmission becomes less and less likely.
The turning point was in 2008, when the Swiss National Aids Commission issued what was subsequently to be known as 'The Swiss Statement'. It carried the message that "an HIV-infected person on antiretroviral therapy with completely suppressed viraemia is not sexually infectious, i.e. cannot transmit HIV through sexual contact."
In July last year a landmark study known as the PARTNER study provided solid evidence showing that people with an undetectable viral load cannot pass on the virus.
Fighting the stigma
Dr Michael Brady, Medical Director of Terrence Higgins Trust, commented: "We have a responsibility to share up-to-date scientific facts about HIV, and this must now include the fact that people on effective HIV treatment are not infectious. This is one of the biggest developments in our knowledge of HIV since effective antiretroviral therapy was first introduced in 1996."
The charity hopes that the campaign and the results of the recent survey will help spread the most up-to-date scientific information about HIV and dispel common misconceptions.