A groundbreaking advancement has been made in the fight against HIV: a study on HIV-carrying men found that the risk of viral transmission is zero if the virus is suppressed by antiretrovirals. The study suggests that offering proper treatment to everyone carrying HIV would end virtually all HIV transmission.

HIV-infected T cell. Image credits: NIAID.

The landmark European study followed nearly 1,000 gay male couples, where one partner had HIV and the other was taking antiretroviral drugs to suppress it. The couples had sex without condoms or other forms of protection. After eight years of medical checks and follow-ups, the study found no HIV transmission at all within couples.

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A key point of the study was the fact that it did find HIV infections in 15 men among the 972 gay couples, but genetic analysis showed that their infections were with strains of HIV from another sexual partner. In other words, people did contract HIV, but only from partners who had not taken the antiretroviral treatment.

“Our findings provide conclusive evidence for gay men that the risk of HIV transmission with suppressive ART is zero,” said Alison Rodger, a professor at University College London who co-led the research.

Rodgers could barely contain her enthusiasm for the results, saying that it represents a huge step forward for HIV-infected people.

“It’s brilliant – fantastic. This very much puts this issue to bed,” said Prof Alison Rodgers from University College London, the co-leader of the paper published in the Lancet medical journal.

“This powerful message can help end the HIV pandemic by preventing HIV transmission, and tackling the stigma and discrimination that many people with HIV face,” she continued.

Of course, while this shows that an end to HIV transmissions might be in sight, actually achieving that goal is a whole different ball game. HIV and AIDS are currently in a rather weird phase. Since the epidemic began in the 1980s, more than 77 million people have become infected with HIV, and almost half of them have been killed by it. There is no true cure to eliminate the virus, but antiretroviral treatments have become very efficient at keeping it under control. Out of the people taking proper treatment, 97% have an undetectable level of the virus, meaning they cannot pass it further. However, the number of new infections stubbornly remains at around 1.8 million cases worldwide per year. Furthermore, there are significant concerns regarding the virus potentially developing resistance to current treatments.

It seems that HIV might be entering a make-or-break phase. While this study offers renewed hope to contain the virus, there’s still a long way to go and we need sustained efforts to be able to finally deal with this devastating virus.