Since the beginning of the HIV epidemic, from the early ’80s to the present day, gay men living with HIV (PLHIV) have been at the forefront of embracing the latest changes to HIV health in the ‘fight for our lives’ to empower ourselves, support and educate each other to take control of HIV.
Several crucial shifts in the HIV landscape have been readily embraced by PLHIV as activists and mobilisers in advancing that agenda.
In 2011, the evidence which proved the protective effect of early treatment against HIV for negative partners in the case of serodiscordant couples (where one partner is HIV positive and the other HIV negative) saw positive people support the health and safety of their loved ones by embracing this early game change.
The NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner MP made an appeal to PLHIV on World AIDS Day 2013 about our choice to take control of HIV when starting treatment.
Two short years later with the release of the START study findings and the benefits to the individual and their community around starting treatment earlier than ever, we threw our support behind this latest game changer.
Around the same time when improved access to HIV medication in local community pharmacies commenced in NSW, more PLHIV than ever exercised their choice to pick up their HIV medication at a time and place convenient, at no cost.
In late 2016, Positive Life took the position that 100 per cent of people diagnosed with HIV be offered treatment immediately.
By adopting an immediate treatment commencement position, which halts disease progression and its onward transmission, PLHIV step into the driver’s seat of our health straight away.
We have better long term health outcomes, lower risk of illness and death and contribute to reducing HIV transmission in the broader community.
While we talk about ‘game-changers’ in terms of bio-medical or pharmaceutical solutions, the real game changer is the positive person.
Throughout the whole time of the HIV epidemic as positive gay men, we remained sexually active using or inventing a range of responses to sex and HIV educating our peers and protecting the health of our partners and fuck-buddies.
HIV positive men are the bower-birds of risk reduction strategies when it comes to having sex. We have always been an integral player in negotiated sex conversations concerning HIV prevention.
Many of us use serosorting or only have unprotected sex with other positive guys to remove the risk of HIV transmission, while others use strategic positioning between partners of mixed sero-status.
Many regular or committed partners use disclosure and negotiated safety in relationships. And there’s always the mainstay of condoms.
Now with PrEP joining PEP in the prevention arsenal, we have a range of HIV prevention strategies to use depending on the circumstance and situation.
The rise of one of our latest and strongest tools to prevent the transmission of the virus and offer protection to those we love and the broader community is ‘Treatment as Prevention’, or TasP.
This strategy is used by PLHIV who take their HIV treatments as prescribed to prevent HIV transmission or being infectious.
When we use TasP to maintain an undetectable viral load (UVL), we are no longer able to transmit the virus.
While not all of us can achieve or maintain an UVL, for those of us who can, it is recognised as a key sexual health strategy by many health promotion NGO’s including World Health Organisation, UNAIDS, Positive Life and ACON.
Perhaps the strongest evidence of TasP has come out of the 2016 Partners Study. After 58,000 occasions of ‘bareback’ or condomless sex between 848 sero-discordant couples globally, there were zero instances of HIV transmission.
ZERO! Not one negative partner contracted HIV from their HIV positive partner.
As community awareness and understanding about TasP grows, the realisation that TasP works not only for positive people but lets HIV negative people know that positive people with an UVL are sexually safe.
The safer sex landscape has definitely changed. We’ve seen a succession of major HIV game-changes throughout the epidemic.
These have been both in the pharmaceutical area as well as in the social interactions between gay men as we navigate our way through sex, pleasure and care to manage our health thoughtfully and responsibly.
Today with a range of HIV prevention strategies, the sero-divide in the community is changed. HIV positive or negative, there are new ways for all members of our community to care for each other and share responsibility for informed sexual health choices.
Continuing in the spirit of Mardi Gras, let’s celebrate our sexual pleasures, freedoms and choices in the light of TasP, serosorting, strategic positioning, negotiated safety, PEP and PrEP.
Let’s continue to encourage and support each other to take control of our sexual health and talk confidently and openly with each other about our sex and pleasure options and choices.