Much of reporting on HIV and AIDS is fraught, penned by untrained writers attempting to reconcile dense medical research into a third grade reading to elucidates what it means.
Back in March, The New York Times‘ cover headline screamed: “HIV Is Reported Cured in a Second Patient...” Except what the article should have said was buried in the story: “The technique used on them involves severely weakening the immune system before a marrow transplant. It is so dangerous that it is unethical to perform it on anyone not already at risk of dying from cancer, especially because most people with HIV can live relatively normal lives by taking a daily antiretroviral cocktail.”
For doctors to claim an HIV-positive person “functionally cured,” they need to make certain that levels of HIV are undetectable in the bloodstream. To some extent, this is accomplished today with antiretrovirals, HIV treatment medications that suppress the virus to such low levels that itis no longer detectable in the bloodstream, and is no longer transmittable to others. This idea is at the heart of U=U, which has been supported by the hundreds of doctors, advocates, organizations, and governmental agencies like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Keeping all this in mind underscores how remarkable Prevention Access Campaign’s Bruce Richman’s groundbreaking work on the Undetectable Equals Untransmittable (U=U) is.
Richman is executive director and founded Prevention Access Campaign which came up with the Undetectable = Untransmittable (U=U) message. In the three years since they began, the movement has grown substantially and spread to nearly one hundred countries, all united to share the revolutionary but largely unknown fact that people living with HIV on treatment with an undetectable viral load cannot transmit HIV to sexual partners.
Richman has been featured extensively in national and international media including The Washington Post, CBS Evening News, CNN, BBC, NPR, China Global Television, CBC Canada, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and The Lancet.
In 2018, Plus magazine reported, quoting Richmond, “We will not let people lie about us,” Richman says. “U equals U, undetectable equals untransmittable… is dismantling HIV stigma. It’s incentivizing treatment uptake and adherence. And [it] underscores the demand for universal treatment and prevention access. U equals U changes everything!”
Diagnosed with HIV in 2003 Richman admits that constant reminders of his “infectiousness” kept him from starting treatment until his health declined in 2010. “Later, after an incident where he feared he had accidentally put a partner at risk, Richman discovered the critical, but barely known, science. ‘I learned from my doctor that because I was undetectable, I couldn’t transmit HIV. I couldn’t pass it on. I was elated!’
“His excitement soon turned to outrage, reported Plus, when he realized “every HIV treatment site, media outlet, HIV/AIDS service organization, federal and state health department—just about everywhere—was saying that I was still a risk. And millions of people with HIV were still a risk.”
That outrage coupled with his Harvard law school diploma and his 25 -year career developing cause-related initiatives for high profile people and brands, played huge roles in the campaign’s success.
The breakthrough science was not getting through to providers, policymakers, the general public, and most importantly, people living with HIV. “To clear up the confusion,” Richman said, “a group of us living with HIV collaborated with researchers on a [U=U] consensus statement and advocacy campaign.”