BY Bob Adams
December 09 2009 11:00 AM ET
Though unscientific, the informal evidence is so persuasive that some physicians have privately told their patients that they believe them to be noninfectious.
“My HIV doctor once told someone I was dating that I would probably never transmit the virus to him,” says John Mitrushi, a 49-year-old from Pleasantville, N.J. “He said, ‘I would bet my life on it.’ And that was four years ago.”
But it’s statements like that -- and announcements like those from the Swiss AIDS Commission -- that has American AIDS experts like Monique Howard, executive director of the New Jersey Women and AIDS Network, fearing that more and more HIVers will now be more willing to engage in risky sex. “I think a lot of people may say ‘I’m undetectable and take my meds; therefore, I don’t have to use condoms,’ ” she says. “I am very fearful people will use that research as their justification to throw caution to the wind.”
Thomas Hardy, a 47-year-old Philadelphia attorney, says he expects some HIV-positive gay men to use the study to justify not disclosing their serostatus, particularly to casual or anonymous sex partners. “There are guys who prefer not to disclose because there’s still a lot of stigma, prejudice, and discrimination out there,” says Hardy, who believes HIVers like himself have an obligation to disclose their serostatus. “They might wonder why they should take a chance on being rejected by disclosing something that doesn’t pose a risk to anyone anyway. If you’re looking for an excuse not to disclose, here it is.”
That same vein of logic could easily be used to undermine a community-level intervention that AIDS experts say has played a vital role in reducing HIV transmission rates, particularly among gay and bisexual men -- “serosorting,” the practice of choosing sex partners of the same HIV serostatus so that there’s no risk of new infection through unprotected sex.
But backed by the Swiss agency’s conclusion that they might no longer be infectious, many HIVers who practiced serosorting could question why they should continue to limit their sex partners. That’s exactly what’s happening with men like New Yorker Tom, who’d recently avoided dating an HIV-negative man he met online because of transmission fears. But now, believing himself to be noninfectious, he’s had a marked change of heart: “I’m definitely going to meet him now.”
Hardy, however, isn’t convinced that he should abandon tried-and-true prevention methods, including serosorting and using condoms, especially given that U.S. AIDS organizations quickly denounced the Swiss statement and reiterated their calls for HIVers to continue to practice protected sex. “You don’t change behavior based on just one study,” he says.
Sherri Lewis agrees. During her 23-year fight against HIV, the 54-year-old Lewis has heard far too many wondrous predictions that ultimately were proved wrong.
“Remember how people thought that when they achieved undetectable viral loads taking protease inhibitors they could stop taking their medications -- or safely go on drug holidays? That didn’t turn out to be true,” says Los Angeles resident Lewis, who as Sherri Beachfront hosts the weekly HIV-themed podcast Straight Girl in a Queer World. “Who knows what they’ll discover years from now that debunks this conclusion?”