Treatment as Prevention. A last short postscriptPosted on May 1st, 2009 No comments
I have written several posts dealing with “Treatment as Prevention” referring to proposals that the epidemic could be controlled by testing and treating all infected people. However, as this phrase is also used in a different, although related context, I am adding this last postscript.
Thus, “treatment as prevention” has a context that concerns populations and considers a strategy to control and even end the epidemic. The same phrase also has a context that deals with prevention of infection at an individual level, and focuses on transmission risks between two people.
The latter context was brought to attention in 2008 by the Swiss Federal Commission on HIV/AIDS. Their publication essentially states that, under certain conditions, with effective antiviral treatment achieving an undetectable viral load, the risk of sexual transmission without condom use is not greater than that with the use of condoms.
Among the conditions stipulated is that there is no sexually transmitted infection, and that the viral load has been undetectable for at least six months.
Now a German voluntary organization, Deutsche AIDS-Hilfe, has added support – with some modifications to the Swiss statement.
There was a huge controversy when the Swiss recommendations were first made public in 2008. Their conclusions were rejected by groups in the US, even by those who promoted the application of the same principle – the reduction in infectivity conferred by treatment – as a means of controlling the epidemic.
I was – and am – absolutely supportive of the Swiss recommendations as applied to individuals. Here is an excerpt from a letter I wrote when the Swiss document was published:
“The report is absolutely reasonable. There are caveats and cautions in it, and since I can see no reasonable objection to them, we have to look elsewhere to try and understand why the report has provoked such a furious response. I know it is a bit pedantic and pretentious but I’m going to add a quotation that is over 100 years old that recognizes that scientists can be as irrational as anyone else (especially about sex), here it is:
In Man Adapting, Rene Dubos notes that:
“The presuppositions on which medicine operates are thus conditioned by the general philosophy of the social group as a whole” and adds the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1860:
“The truth is that medicine, professedly founded on observation, is as sensitive to outside influences, political, religious, philosophical, imaginative, as is the barometer to the changes in atmospheric density”10
I would bet that some who have commented have not even read the cautious Swiss text, and have allowed their prejudices and squeamishness about sex in general to surface at the very mention of sex without condoms.
The Swiss authors do deserve some recognition for their courage. There are circumstances in which it is not irresponsible to have sex without condoms. And even for those for whom these circumstances do not apply, the knowledge of the possibility of sex without condoms will be an encouragement, in at least two ways.
Firstly, to continue using condoms when this is necessary, and then as a support with treatment adherence and monitoring.
I say these things as someone who had something to do with the original introduction of condom use for AIDS prevention in 1983, – briefly described here:
and until now thought – as probably most did, that condom use would be forever.
Knowing that this is not necessarily so is a tremendous encouragement and I believe this thought alone will help our prevention efforts”.
I have continued to encourage the use of condoms, but I do welcome the Swiss document for pointing out, with appropriate documentation and caution, that there are circumstances when it is not irresponsible to dispense with them.
This also means that there are circumstances when conception is possible. There are also implications in situations where there are laws that criminalize sexual contact with HIV infected people under certain circumstances.
A large part of the irrational responses to the proposal are I believe based on a disparaging attitude towards sex.
For many, the use of condoms is a barrier to intimacy. The knowledge that if certain circumstances can be met, an infected person is not endangering their sexual partner by dispensing with condoms is in fact a life affirming celebration of sex, one of life’s joys.
Admittedly, dispensing with condoms will not be possible for most individuals. It is probably most relevant to serodiscordant couples in a stable relationship – that is where only one of the partners is HIV infected.
But knowing that this might be achieved could be a great support to most HIV infected people who must continue to use condoms It will also be a greater incentive to remain adherent to one’s treatment regimen.
Of course the diminished infectivity of effectively treated individuals is the basis for the proposals to use treatment of all infected people as a means of controlling the epidemic.
This is a very different situation, most importantly because it will involve treating people who do not need to be treated for their own personal benefit. These healthier people will derive no benefit from the medications and only be exposed to their side effects. I have written about this in previous posts on treatment as prevention.
Except for the relatively uncommon situations outlined in the Swiss document, and more cautiously and explicitly, in the German document, the consistent use of condoms remains one of the most important measures we have to prevent infection.
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