This article was published on March 16th, 2016
A study has been released demonstrating the key role that gay men with HIV and early testing play in preventing HIV transmission. In the study, Understanding the impact of HIV among recently diagnosed gay men in Vancouver, researchers focused on understanding men’s experiences of being diagnosed with HIV early on in the infection period.
Using the pooled nucleic acid amplification test (or NAAT), gay men can now find out their diagnosis as soon as 10-12 days after seroconversion, helping them to prevent transmitting the virus to other sexual partners. During that early phase of HIV infection, the guy’s viral load is very high, increasing the risk he will transmit it to a partner and a large proportion of new HIV infections occur during this phase. This test will pick up the virus whereas standard tests may actually provide a negative test result during this phase. Diagnosing a guy during this acute phase prevents between one and three other guys from acquiring the virus and this is because of the key role a recently diagnosed guy plays by taking steps to prevent transmitting the virus to partners.
Contrary to internet horror stories and urban legends of guys living with HIV being reckless, the study found that recently diagnosed men took immediate steps to make sure the virus stops with them. This included abstaining from sex during the acute phase, using safer sex practices, and making an effort to reduce their viral load to an undetectable level as soon as they could. Many participants emphasized their personal commitment to preventing the spread of HIV. 96% of participants agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “It is my responsibility for not transmitting HIV.” As one study participant said”:
“Everything seemed really good. My CD4 is over a thousand, and [my doctor] said… My doctor actually said that she wouldn’t personally, would not put me on medication, just because […] everything seemed to be really good. […] So, but my attitude is, I just want to be undetectable. […] I don’t want to be, like, a public health risk. Which I am, I feel, unless I’m celibate, and I’m not going to be celibate. So I told her if she would approve putting me on meds, that I would like, I would rather that. And she had no problem with it. She understood where I was coming from. […] So, being undetectable is important.” —25 years old
These men stated that achieving an undetectable viral load marked a key milestone in their journey and how that impacted them positively in several ways.
In what may be surprising to some, many of the men in the study saw the positive impacts their diagnosis had on their lives:
“Now, that’s basically, and basically, yeah, a blessing in disguise. […] I was just fading and I just didn’t have, like it takes, it took an effort just to even want to eat or to do whatever, and then since I’ve been HIV positive I have been making, not all the time, but I’ve noticed little changes. I’ve been taking care of myself a way better. Things have changed for the better in a weird way.” —42 years old
“The most important thing that’s changed for me? Probably the way that I see life, or live life, I guess. I’m definitely not going to take things for granted.”— 21 years old, acute infection
These men used their diagnosis as a wakeup call to focus on improving their physical and mental health. Since suicide, heart disease, and other chronic health conditions are far more serious than HIV in the Western World, the fact that these men are taking control of their health means they will likely be far better off than the general population.
This study clearly demonstrates the need for NAAT to become more widely used among high risk populations such as gay men in order to help end the epidemic. It also shows how HIV-positive men are leading the way in prevention and healthier lives.