World AIDS Day: A Changing Landscape

World AIDS Day, observed each year on December 1, is an opportunity for people around the world to unite in the fight against HIV, show support for people living with HIV, and to remember those who died from HIV- or AIDS-related complications.

Knowing your HIV status is the first step in preventing HIV.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that everyone get tested at least once in their lifetime.  If a person participates in high-risk behaviors, CDC recommends more frequent testing.  Take a moment to read about HIV Risk and Prevention and consider taking an HIV test as part of your personal commitment to preventing HIV.

People who are HIV negative and people who are HIV positive can both take medications to prevent new HIV infections. Biomedical interventions (using medication to prevent HIV transmission) give us a real opportunity to end the HIV epidemic.

Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP)—Prophylaxis means to prevent the spread of infection or disease.  PrEP is a once-a-day pill that can prevent the transmission of HIV.  Studies have shown that PrEP is over 90% effective in preventing HIV when taken every day.  The CDC also recommends that people on PrEP continue to use condoms for extra protection and to prevent other sexually transmitted infections.  For more information about PrEP, or to find a PrEP provider in your area, visit the Virginia Greater Than AIDS page.

Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP)—PEP is used after a person has a potential exposure to HIV.   PEP can be used after unprotected sex; a condom broke or after a sexual assault.  Health care workers can also use PEP if they have an exposure at work.  PEP is taken for 28 days and must be started within 72 hours of exposure.  The sooner that PEP is started, the better the results are.  For more information on PEP, check out the CDC PEP Fact Sheet, or call the Virginia Disease Prevention Hotline at 800-533-4148.

HIV Treatment—While there is no cure for HIV, taking HIV medications can improve health outcomes and help people living with HIV live a normal lifespan.  CDC recently confirmed that when HIV medications result in viral suppression, HIV is not transmitted to other people through sex.  Viral suppression is when an HIV-positive individual has less than 200 copies of the virus per milliliter of blood, or is undetectable.  Undetectable is a term that means a person’s viral load is at such low levels that the virus may not be detected in their blood.  Being undetectable is not a constant state and if a person stops taking their medications, their viral load will go back up again.

Across three different studies, including thousands of couples and many thousand acts of sex without a condom or PrEP, no HIV transmissions to an HIV-negative partner were observed when the HIV-positive person was virally suppressed.  This means that people who take HIV medications daily as prescribed, and achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load, have effectively no risk of sexually transmitting HIV to an HIV-negative partner.   The results of these studies are being promoted through U=U (Undetectable = Untransmittable) campaigns across the US to encourage both HIV testing and linkage to and retention in HIV medical care. Feel free to read more about HIV treatment as prevention.

Many have died from HIV- and AIDS-related complications, but with new scientific advances occurring every year, we can change the story of HIV in the United States and Virginia.  Protect yourself and your loved ones by learning about HIV and how to prevent infection.  Talk to your friends or loved ones about the importance of HIV testing and treatment.  Together we can combat the stigma around and educate on HIV, helping to make Virginia the healthiest state in the nation.