BY Bob Adams
December 09 2009 10:00 AM ET
Tom, a 38-year-old New Yorker, could hardly believe what he was reading. Splashed across newspapers, websites like MSNBC.com, and online bulletin boards in January were shocking headlines like “Unprotected Sex OK for Some With HIV,” trumpeting an announcement by the Swiss AIDS Commission, which after reviewing data from several studies had concluded that HIVers who are stable on their treatment regimens could safely have unprotected sex with seronegative partners. “I could not have been happier when I read that,” says Tom, who is normally reluctant to become sexually involved with HIV-negative partners. “I feel like an entire pool of potential mates may have been opened up for me.”
He isn’t alone. The publication of the Swiss declaration opened a virtual Pandora’s box in the HIV community, with many HIVers like Tom saying they may now be more likely to have sexual relationships with seronegative partners, while others, because they believe they’re not infectious, are questioning whether to continue serosorting, disclosing their status, or practicing safer sex.
On the other side of the issue are HIVers who call the announcement “dangerous” and “immoral,” and who have denounced the commission’s conclusions as well as the validity of the research they examined.
And for those falling somewhere between these opposing positions, the Swiss announcement merely highlighted an ongoing sexual anxiety that many regularly grapple with: What can I do with my partners without infecting them?
“There’s an enormous amount of confusion when it comes to sex,” says 53-year-old Daniel Carmin of Los Angeles. “I’ve asked my friends, ‘If we have undetectable levels of virus, what do we have to transmit?’ And we just looked at each other, puzzled.”
Anecdotal evidence would seem to support the notion that an undetectable viral load diminishes transmission risks, say some long-term HIVers and those who’ve tracked HIV’s epidemiology.
“This is something we’ve seen here in San Francisco for a while,” notes 48-year-old Lee Jewell, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1986. “I’ve had barrier-free sex with a couple of negative guys, including my partner at the time I tested positive, and they haven’t been infected. I personally have not heard of others transmitting their virus to their uninfected partners through unprotected sex.”