No new cases of HIV emerged among a group of gay men who had unprotected sex with infected partners who were undergoing treatment in a new Australian study. While this might be shocking to those of us who have been subjected to the CDC’s fear campaigns surrounding the virus, most scientists and doctors who have been working in AIDS-related fields have long known that the risks of transmission are often wildly exaggerated.
University of New South Wales researchers assessed the sexual activity and rates of HIV transmission among more than 350 gay couples in which one partner was infected with the virus. Each of the couples, who lived in Australia, Thailand and Brazil, reported their sexual activity over the course of four years. During that time, the HIV-negative partners were tested regularly to detect any new infections.
During the study’s four-year duration, not a single participant contracted HIV from his HIV-positive partner, even though the participants had anal sex nearly 17,000 times in total without using condoms. Although three new cases did arise, analysis of the virus in those men found that it was caused not by the infected partner but from sex outside of the relationship. The findings of what is said to be the biggest study of its kind were presented during the Paris AIDS Conference on HIV Science.
This research highlights the importance of preventing the transmission of the virus, particularly when it comes to gay men. According to the study’s lead author, Professor Andrew Grulich, the risk of transmission via anal sex is 10 times higher than the risk through vaginal intercourse.
Prevention is the focus of the “Undetectable equals Untransmissible” campaign that is currently underway and is aimed at urging those who have the virus to continue their treatment so they do not infect others with it.
Contrast this with the approach used in the 1980s and 1990s, when HIV fears hit a fever pitch. Despite the overwhelming evidence that gay men have a much higher risk of contracting the disease than heterosexual couples, false fears were spread to secure more funding. Posters depicting graveyards and cemeteries did their best to scare everyone into thinking they were at risk, all while taking much-needed funding away from the at-risk groups that needed help the most.
In 1987, the use of federal funds for AIDS prevention campaigns that encouraged or promoted homosexual activities was banned. Many people feel that some used the opportunity to push their morals on others given the nature of transmission.
The CDC might have been technically correct in their message that “anyone can get it”, but it was wrong to play down its much higher prevalence in certain populations. This fear-mongering was very convenient for them in terms of getting funding, but it wasn’t based on many facts.
In a 1996 article that the Wall Street Journal boldly published on its front page entitled “AIDS Fight Is Skewed By Federal Campaign Exaggerating Risks”, writers Anita Sharpe and Amanda Bennet took federal health officials to task for misleading the public about the odds, which they said are 1,000 to one against female HIV infection from a single incident of vaginal intercourse with an HIV-positive male partner. They added the risk was smaller than getting hit by lightning.
They drew attention to the CDC’s “marketing campaign” to help funding flow to various AIDS programs, which exaggerated the risk of heterosexual transmission because campaign planners felt that funding was unlikely if the disease was viewed mainly as a problem confined to gay men and drug abusers.
Most of the cases of HIV spread among women and heterosexual men stem from intravenous drug use rather than sexual intercourse, and we now also know that transmission from those with undetectable viral loads who stick to their treatment regimen is practically zero, even among homosexuals.
In 2008, the head of the World Health Organization’s HIV/AIDS division at the time, Dr. Kevin de Cook, made waves when he said “There will be no generalized epidemic of AIDS in the heterosexual population outside Africa.” He admitted that heterosexual epidemics were unlikely to erupt in countries outside of sub-Saharan Africa.
His comment came at a time when AIDS organizations like UN AIDS, the Global Fund, and the WHO were under fire for inflating their estimates of the number of infected people and diverting funds from other pressing health problems like malaria in addition to focusing on unrealistic measures like abstinence instead of condoms.
While transmission is indeed very low among heterosexuals and among gay men who are taking daily anti-viral medication and have undetectable viral loads, the scientists were quick to add that sex without a condom is still not a good idea because of the possibility of transmitting other sexually transmitted diseases. No one is suggesting that people should not practice safe sex, but it is important for the public to have a realistic idea about the odds.