A Brief History of the Undetectable Viral Load: Controlling the Spread of HIV for Decades

Just 20 years ago when the first antiretroviral treatments for HIV started to enter the market, it seemed almost impossible to envision a time when infection didn’t mean a lifetime of harsh side effects and a severely truncated life span. Cut to the modern day, and HIV positive patients who undergo regular treatment soon after diagnosis are able to live well into old age, while experiencing only a mild impact on their quality of life. However the most inconceivable achievement of modern HIV medication, is the Undetectable Viral Load (UVL).

What is the UVL?

In the most basic terms a UVL means that the number of HIV hijacked cells present in a millilitre of blood is less than 50. Reaching this figure is the objective of most modern antiretroviral treatments (ART).

The history of undetectable viral load, begins in Uganda, when a community-based study of 15,000 HIV status couples revealed that the primary predictor of HIV transmission between partners. Although the study primarily focused on straight couples, the implications for a homosexual community racked by the social ramifications of the illness were clear.

So, in 2008 when a Swiss Commission on HIV-related issues issued the following statement,

An HIV-infected person on antiretroviral therapy with completely suppressed viraemia (“effective ART”) is not sexually infectious, i.e. cannot transmit HIV through sexual contact.

HIV positive gay men were able to reclaim a freedom and social grace, many thought they had long since lost.

But what does a UVL mean practically, for HIV positive gay men? Well, a study conducted in 2016 by the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that, of 1,166 couples in which one partner had HIV – not one single incidence of transmission was found in cases where that partner had a UVL. In other words, the disease becomes almost completely non-infectious.

How to Get a UVL in Australia

ART in Australia is part of the government’s pharmaceutical benefits scheme (PBS), this entitles HIV positive patients to pay only a nominal fee for medication which would otherwise cost hundreds of dollars. Currently HIV treatment costs about $37 for two months worth of medication, if patients have a concessional card or equivalent, treatment can cost as little as $5.60.

In order to get a prescription you must visit with an HIV-specialized doctor, who will administer and monitor regular blood tests, consult with you regarding treatment options and address any related health concerns you may have. To find a list of affordable and qualified health care professionals get in touch with your local HIV support organization or AIDs council.

Without Medicare

If you don’t have access to Medicare you will need to obtain medication through one of the following options.

Buy at Full Price

As mentioned before these drugs can cost upwards of hundreds of dollars per month, so this will only be a feasible option for the wealthy.

Order Generic Medication from Abroad

If you can find a reputable overseas supplier then you could buy non-branded generic formulations of normal HIV medications. While this will certainly be a cheaper option, it will still be quite expensive and you will need to order and pay for your drugs in advance to facilitate shipping.