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U=U not getting through
A recent study confirms that fear of HIV continues to trump scientific knowledge of the virus. As Michael Rodriguez reports, such prejudice wreaks havoc on the lives of people living with HIV.
According to a recent US study, a disturbingly high amount of HIV-negative gay men doubt the veracity of the statement undetectable = untransmittable”. If you haven’t heard that motto before, it’s pretty simple: people living with HIV who are on medication and whose viral loads have reached undetectable status cannot transmit the virus to their sexual partners.
The 2018 study on U=U ended up recruiting 12,222 eligible gay and bisexual men to share how they really felt about the slogan, which is gaining consensus among the medical and scientific communities, though that consensus has not extended to the general population. The men recruited were asked to give four possible answers on how accurate they believe the slogan to be: completely accurate, somewhat accurate, somewhat inaccurate and completely inaccurate.
Only one-third of HIV-negative men and men who didn’t know their status believed the statement to be either completely or somewhat accurate, compared to 70 percent of HIV-positive men. Among HIV-negative men, those who were on PrEP, those who tested for HIV every six months, and those who engaged in condomless anal sex with HIV-positive men, were more likely to believe that “U=U”.
As an HIV-negative man, I understand the myriad reasons for not yet believing that undetectable = untransmittable. It’s not actually about learning something new, but unlearning lifelong messages that just being gay, and loving other men, would most likely lead to acquiring HIV.
This fear continues to wreak havoc on the lives of people living with HIV. While advances in medicine have made life with HIV easier in many ways, stigma and fear around the virus have failed to progress at the same rate. Aside from individual interactions with HIV-positive people, the amount of fear in the world continues to make it easy for politicians and people in the criminal justice system to punish those living with HIV just for living.
Though it’s easy to see the root of this long-held stigma, that doesn’t excuse its survival. In the era of U=U, believing that HIV-positive people with an undetectable viral load can pass the virus on is akin to denying climate change. The scientific consensus is there.
UPDATE: The study took place prior to the CDC endorsing the U=U message. Since then, now half of HIV-negative people surveyed believe in the science behind U=U.