HIV isn’t easily transmitted by sex, Canadian doctors say

A doctor speaks to a patient
A group of more than 70 Canadian doctors and researchers banded together to release a statement that says that HIV is “difficult” to transmit sexually. Adam Berry/Getty Images

TORONTO – A group of more than 70 Canadian doctors and researchers banded together to release a statement that states that HIV is “difficult” to transmit sexually.

In a statement published Friday, the doctors also said that these days HIV transmission varies from low-to-impossible with the help of factors such as condom use and drug therapy to lower viral loads.

The doctors said they decided to issue the statement out of concern because of an increasing number cases that have criminalized HIV non-disclosure in Canada. The position isn’t necessarily for the public but for those working within the justice system.

“More recently, criminalization of HIV has been promoted as a way to prevent HIV transmission. It’s very counterproductive and we felt it was time to make a statement and inform the legal system about the actual science they should be making their decisions upon,” Dr. Mark Tyndall, the head of infectious diseases research at the University of Ottawa, told Global News.

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“I don’t want to lose the message that we’re advocates of prevention, disclosing your HIV status and using condoms – none of that should change. We just feel that…the science seems to get lost,” he said.

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There is currently no cure for HIV, but huge leaps in medicine have helped those living with the condition – some physicians even argue that the disease that once handed people a death sentence should now be called a chronic condition.

HIV patients who take drug cocktails known as HAART, or highly active antiretroviral therapy, dramatically reduce their viral load to undetectable levels, making the likelihood of transmitting the disease incredibly low.

Canadian researchers have argued that those who are on HAART reduce the chances of transmission by 96 per cent. The scientists’ research on HAART therapy has been applauded by the United Nations as a “treatment as a prevention” strategy to combat HIV/AIDS.

In the statement, Tyndall and his colleagues even refer to being spat on or bitten – in either instance, there is no possibility of transmission.

“Some of the more egregious kinds of rulings have been in those cases – there are actual cases of people being charged with spitting when there’s absolutely no possibility that they could transmit HIV,” Tyndall said.

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Laura Keegan, director of resource development public engagement at HIV Edmonton, said that there’s also stigma that people still face.

“There’s criminalization of something that comes out of stigma, not the science. This is clarifying the science of HIV and how far we’ve come in the past 30 years,” she said.

“We’re still looking at that stigma and discrimination and it continues to make HIV a difficult topic for people,” she told Global News.

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The organization has been sharing a video that has people with HIV encouraging others with the virus to take their medication, even in times of stress or instability.

In October 2012, in a pair of landmark decisions, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Canadians who are HIV-positive can’t be held criminally responsible for failing to disclose their status – but only if the person uses a condom and has only low levels of the virus.

Judges at Canada’s highest court handed a unanimous ruling in two cases that involved Canadians who were living with HIV and had sex with partners without informing them of their disease.

The ruling was contentious – Crown attorneys in the cases had argued that HIV is a terminal disease and officials shouldn’t bear the responsibility of determining what’s safe and what isn’t while some physicians and lawyers suggested that HIV is now a manageable disease and forcing those living with the condition would stigmatize the group and perpetuate fear.

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