Undetectable viral load (UVL) has recently become an unlikely buzzword recently among the gay community. For many of us figuring out how immune cells function used to be a topic best left to high school biology class. But with awareness about STI, growing HIV infection, and advances in antiretroviral therapies (ART) greatly reducing the risks of living with the disease, many individuals are deciding that now is the best time to take responsibility for health and safety into their own hands.
Encouraging statistics published in Australia’s Annual Surveillance Report show that 90% of HIV positive adults are now aware of their status and that a further 92% are currently living with a suppressed UVL. Indeed gay and bisexual men are “leading the way in eradicating HIV transmission in Australia”, according to Dr Limin Mao at the Centre for Social Research in Health at UNSW.
If you’re wondering about UVL and how it relates to your life, then here’s everything you need to know.
Understanding UVL and how it works ultimately reduces complications and the risk of transmission, let’s take a closer look at how HIV works. Once present in the body, HIV takes over your immune cells and starts replicating, destroying your body’s defenses against infection and illness in the process.
Treatments such as ART for HIV positive individuals prevent the virus from replicating in the cells. A UVL is achieved when standard testing reveals fewer than 50 copies of HIV carrying immune cells in the system. For those that are HIV negative, PReP works in much the same way, preventing copies of HIV to be made in the cells at all.
How UVL Benefits You:
The first thing we all worry about with HIV is “what are my risks of getting infected, or infecting someone else”. The great news is HIV positive gay men who are taking consistent ART treatments will reduce their risks of passing on infection by 92-96%. This means that as long as you’re not missing doses even unprotected sex carries a negligible risk of passing on an infection. Moreover, using PReP regularly, will further reduce the likelihood of transmission to below 1%.
The health benefits of UVL to an HIV positive person also cannot be ignored. With a majority of immune cells still intact, a body will be far better equipped to fight off illnesses and other complications that often arise from HIV infection.
Research carried out in North America suggests that proper treatment can increase not just the quality of life, but longevity too, by a significant amount. At last count, an estimated 15 years are added to the lives of HIV positive men, who are undergoing regular ART bringing up the average life span of sufferers from 56.1 years in 2002 to 71 years in 2013.
Be Close to your Partner
Of course one the main benefits of UVL is that it allows gay men, especially those in committed relationships, to have sex with their partner without the use of a condom. While we always recommend staying safe, especially if you’re dealing with concurrent STI’s that could increase the risk of infection, as long as you’re open and honest with your partner and both of you are in agreement, the ability to be intimate in this way again is a huge boost to many relationships.