POSITIVELY AWARE JULY/AUGUST 2011
Condom in a bottle? A significant study finds that treatment protects HIV-negative partners-among stright couples. Will gay couples stop using condoms? By Stephen Fallon, PHD
Big news lit up the Internet in late May: HIV treatments seem to block the virus from spreading during sex. In the HPTN 052 study, researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) tracked more than 1,700 couples and found that “earlier initiation of (the medicines that fight HIV) led to a 96% reduction in HIV transmission to the HIV-uninfected partner.”
How does this work? Anti-HIV medicines interrupt the virus’ ability to multiply inside a person. Scientists suspected that if there’s less HIV circulating in a person’s blood, it’s less likely that any will leak out in their sexual fluids.
Up until now, most prior studies have traced backwards from outcomes. Researchers couldn’t be sure if some other cause might have lowered contagion. This time, they enrolled people first then watched what happened when they took medicines. That makes this study more convincing.
But don’t flush the condoms yet. It turns out, 97% of the couples studied were heterosexual, and half of the participants were women. While the protection afforded during straight vaginal sex might apply to anal sex, too, this wasn’t specifically proven and therefore shouldn’t be assumed until further studies are done.
It should also be noted that nearly all of the patients studied were living outside the United States. Researchers had “difficulties enrolling (U.S.) participants into the study.” It’s possible that patients in the other countries (Botswana, Brazil, India, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Thailand, and Zimbabwe) were more diligent about taking their medicines than typical Western patients are, because the consequences of HIV are starkly more visible in their homelands.
Unfortunately, HIV is not a forgiving disease; if patients skip more than a few doses the virus roars back. In the U.S. and Europe, many patients who start out faithfully taking HIV medications backslide after two years on treatment, dropping to take less than three out of four doses on time.
If people skip doses, their virus levels won’t drop enough, and any prevention benefits will disappear. Worse, if they spread HIV now, it will probably be a more deadly, drug-resistant virus. A 2002 study found that among people unable to fully control their virus, every tenfold increase in HIV levels made them 81% more likely to pass HIV on to a partner.
Whether or not HIV medications stop new infections, shouldn’t everyone who’s HIV-positive take medicines right away, to protect their own health?
Here, things get much murkier. The question about when to start treatment has been debated for years. Delivered at the right time, anti-HIV medications add years, or even decades to life expectancy. But they also often trigger troublesome side effects such as diarrhea, nausea, fatigue, sleep problems, sexual dysfunction, and even hair loss. Over time, their effects on the body’s balances can lead to heart attacks and strokes, liver failure, anemia, diabetes, chronic depression, kidney failure, embarrassing changes in body shape, and more. So the rationale has been to spare people these effects, and only start prescribing medicines when they’re truly needed to support life.
The new NIH study may lead physicians to prescribe HIV treatment even earlier than the nation’s guidelines currently recommend. But it’s not yet entirely clear that the earliest possible treatment lengthens life. It might just add more years of side effects without any net benefit.
Even the HPTN 052 study did not find a definite life benefit for those under early treatment. The authors noted, “There were also 23 deaths during the study. Ten occurred in the immediate treatment group and 13 in the deferred treatment group, a difference that did not reach statistical significance.”
The new study raises an ethical question: who is treatment for? If HIV treatment can truly stop the virus from spreading, then shouldn’t it be “forced” on people living with HIV, whether it adds years to their lives or not? Is treatment supposed to benefit the person living with HIV, or protect the person who might have sex with you?
Unfortunately, very early treatment for the sake of prevention might cause people to “burn through” the best medicines early in their infection, leaving nothing to fall back on when their immune prognosis becomes dire. This would consign those living with HIV to additional years living with complications, and possibly a shorter life expectancy, all in the name of protecting others.
Public health officials do impose treatment for medical conditions such as multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, which can be passed to others through casual contact. But HIV is not that sort of disease. It transmits only through specific, intimate contacts (unprotected sex, sharing needles, nursing babies, rare hospital mistakes). So uninfected people can consciously protect themselves from HIV.
In fact, the most important step to prevent the spread of HIV is simply getting people tested. The vast majority of diagnosed people take steps to protect their partners. Diagnosed people living with HIV have just a one-to-two percent chance of passing their virus each year, and that number is driven up by a few bad players; many never infect anyone else. Even in the NIH study, only 27 partners of the nearly 500 persons not taking treatment became infected over six years.
What if the gay community and others at risk come to believe that treatment provides the best firewall against infection? Will guys be less likely to use condoms? Is the pill bottle more effective than a condom?
Pills can’t help when nearly 10% of all people newly infected acquire HIV from someone else who was also just infected. During this early phase, the tests often can’t detect HIV.
Here’s a scarier reason not to count on someone else’s medicines to protect you: it’s easier to verify that a guy is wearing a condom right now than to prove he has taken his medicines all week. What if a horny guy just tells you that he’s on treatment?
Medications should be dispensed primarily to benefit people living with a disease, not packaged in a rationale to defend the rest of us from their illness.
Of course, there will always be slip-ups: popped condoms and missed doses. That’s why neither condoms nor medicines alone will prevent every infection. We need treatment and prevention, not treatment as prevention.
Stephen Fallon is the president of Skills4, a healthcare consulting firm that provides services to CDC and HRSA funded providers, primarily gay- or minority-based agencies and clinics. www.skills4.org