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'Undetectable equals Untransmittable': The importance of Gareth Thomas' HIV message

Campaigners point out that effective HIV treatment is also effective HIV prevention.

Thomas captained his country and came out as gay in 2009.
Thomas captained his country and came out as gay in 2009.
Image: Yui Mok/PA Images

THE DECISION BY former rugby player Gareth Thomas to speak publicly about living with HIV has been hailed as an important moment with campaigners saying the public reaction has been “really encouraging”.

Irish activist group Act Up works towards reducing the stigma surrounding HIV and supports a similar message to that shared by Thomas in his video on Saturday.

The former Wales rugby captain says he has been diagnosed with HIV but that he is on medication to the point that it is “considered undetectable” and cannot be passed on.

That message and the #cantpassiton hashtag Thomas shared is part of an effort to promote awareness of the fact that effective HIV treatment is also effective HIV prevention.

When someone is on effective treatment for HIV their viral load, the amount of virus in their blood gets very low. This is sometimes referred to as “undetectable”.

At this point, the chance of passing HIV to a sexual partner is zero, leading to the slogan “Undetectable equals Untransmittable”, or U=U.

It does not cure an individual of HIV but means they can live without it affecting their daily lives.

Act Up spokesperson Andrew Leavitt says it’s an important point that people should understand.

“I think a big part of the message is actually just letting people know that there is effective treatment for HIV and that if you can track HIV, and you have access to treatment, HIV is not going to have a huge impact on your health, that if you’re able to manage it and get the medications you’re going to remain healthy,” Leavitt says.

And of course, then the U=U message addresses this, this extra benefit that happens on top of that. Which is that effective treatment also prevents transmission of the virus through sex, so people with HIV don’t have to worry about passing on the virus to their partners, and their partners don’t have to be concerned. People can have children, without using any extra methods, they can just have sex.

Leavitt says this is understood to a greater or lesser degree in different countries but that Ireland perhaps lags behind in its understanding of this.

“It comes as a real surprise to people because people think of HIV as this very, very dangerous, very easily transmitted disease. And even without treatments, it’s not as easily transmitted as people think. But with the treatments, that risk is just eliminated entirely,” he says.

Thomas, who played 100 times for Wales, said he had decided to speak about his HIV diagnoses after blackmailers threatened to reveal it.

Leavitt says the circumstances surrounding Thomas being forced to speak about it are regrettable but that he way he handled it has been “absolutely superb”.

“I think for a lot of people seeing someone come out, and then seeing that there’s a positive, supportive reaction from the public is really encouraging, you know, for them to be able to talk to people in their lives about it.”

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Rónán Duffy

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