Today's treatments mean that most people living with HIV are leading full and active lives. Treatments these days are less toxic, have fewer side effects and are far better at fighting the HIV virus than they once were. Most importantly, today's treatments have significantly increased life expectancy for many people living with HIV.
A critical new piece of research – the START study – shows that starting treatment as early as possible is really important. The START study found that the risk of HIV-related health complications reduces by more than 50% for those who start treatment early. This includes conditions such as cancer, renal failure and liver disease.
New treatments also make reaching an undetectable viral load [U=U] possible for more people. People living with HIV who are on anti-retroviral treatment and maintain an undetectable viral load for at least six months do not sexually transmit HIV.
This creates a major new opportunity for the prevention of HIV transmission, where treatment effectively becomes a form of prevention. Remember, however, that if someone reaches undetectable, their viral load can still go up and down. It's still really important to use protection when hooking up with casual partners.
Today’s HIV treatments are far less toxic and have far fewer side effects than treatments of the past. They are also far more effective at reducing the damage HIV can do to your immune system and overall health. New treatments have made a hugely positive impact on quality of life for many people living with HIV today.
Many people living with HIV these days are on combination therapy – which combines two or more HIV drugs into a single pill or two. Taking lots of pills at all hours of day and night is no longer the reality. Treatments still have some side effects – but in most cases these can be easily managed in consultation with your HIV specialist.
In New Zealand, HIV treatments are funded for all people living with HIV, regardless of their residency status or general eligibility for public healthcare. This means that you will only need to pay a prescription fee (usually around $5) for your meds and all your HIV appointments should be subsidized. This provision only covers HIV-related expenses, so if you need to see your doctor for other reasons you will still need to pay the full price if you are not a New Zealand permanent resident or citizen and your private insurance doesn’t cover this. This is because HIV infection is now a notifiable disease, which means that New Zealand public health agencies collect data on the new diagnoses to keep track of epidemiology. It does not mean that your HIV status is shared with anyone else.
There is currently no cure for HIV. Being undetectable doesn’t mean that you no longer have HIV. It means that the amount of HIV in your body has dropped to a point where it can no longer be detected by standard viral load tests. It also means there is no risk of HIV being transmitted sexually. Once you reach undetectable it doesn’t mean you’ll automatically stay there. The level of HIV in your blood can fluctuate, for example if you forget to take your pills, and regular testing is required to keep track of any changes in viral load.
The START trial has provided important new evidence, showing that starting treatment as soon as possible after an HIV diagnosis drastically improves health outcomes. The study shows that treating HIV early reduces the chances of serious illnesses, such as cancer, renal failure and liver disease, by more than 50%. As well as this, treating early can assist in getting your viral load down to an undetectable level sooner – resulting in there being no risk of sexual transmission. Remember also, getting on treatment significantly improves your life expectancy if you are diagnosed with HIV.
There is plenty of misleading information out there suggesting that treatment for HIV causes premature ageing. By keeping your immune system healthier, treatments reduce the risk of developing health conditions associated with HIV as well as significantly extending life expectancy. There is no reliable evidence to suggest HIV medication leads to premature ageing, or, more specifically, that it will make you look older sooner than you otherwise would.
- It was estimated that in New Zealand at the end of 2015 there were 3,200 people living with HIV and 2,059 people known to be receiving treatment. We believe the figures will be similar for 2016. This means that there are over 1,000 Kiwis who either don’t know they have HIV or have been diagnosed with HIV, but haven’t started treatment. We are aiming to reach the UN target – which is 90% diagnosed, 90% of those diagnosed on treatment and 90% of those on treatment are undetectable. Ending HIV in New Zealand means the number of people living with HIV who are on treatment needs to go up.
- Increasing the number of people living with HIV on treatment starts with testing. We know that around 1 in 5 gay or bi guys in Auckland who are living with HIV don’t know their status and so don’t have the option to consider treatment. If you are a sexually active guy who likes to fuck other guys, we recommend you get tested at least twice a year. Once tested, if you are diagnosed with HIV, you can then talk to your doctor about treatment options.