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‘Perfectly safe’: New Zealand opens world’s first HIV-positive sperm bank

Scientist Fabrice De Bond picks up a vial containing frozen donor sperm samples in a lab at Melbourne IVF in Melbourne, Australia.
Scientist Fabrice De Bond picks up a vial containing frozen donor sperm samples in a lab at Melbourne IVF in Melbourne, Australia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ AP, Wong Maye-E

The world’s first HIV-positive sperm bank has launched in New Zealand.

Three men living with HIV from New Zealand have donated to the bank, called Sperm Positive.

While each of the men is HIV-positive, they have undergone successful treatment resulting in a low, “undetectable” amount of the virus in their blood that cannot be spread through unprotected sex or childbirth.

READ MORE: Antiretroviral drugs stop HIV transmission, study shows — but can people afford them?

The online bank says it will make it clear to people seeking a donor that they have HIV, but that the virus cannot be passed on.

According to the Sperm Positive website, the bank will not be operating as a fertility clinic “in any way,” but “several local fertility clinics are able to support people living with HIV to utilize their services.”

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‘I was told, you’re going to die’: Calgary man living with HIV speaks about realities of diagnosis
‘I was told, you’re going to die’: Calgary man living with HIV speaks about realities of diagnosis

“Any interested parties will be referred to the professionals there to proceed with treatment, should they wish to do so,” the website reads.

The bank was created by the New Zealand Aids Foundation, Positive Women Inc. and Body Positive and launched ahead of World Aids Day in an attempt to educate the people of New Zealand about HIV transmission.

‘Perfectly safe’

Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is a combination of drugs that block the HIV virus’ cycle and prevent it from replicating in an individual’s body.

Effective ART can lower the amount of the virus in the patient’s blood to undetectable levels.

First person cured of HIV appears in Vancouver
First person cured of HIV appears in Vancouver

While the patient has not been cured, it does means the virus is at such a low level that it cannot be transmitted through unprotected sex or childbirth.

According to the World Health Organization, there is “no evidence that individuals who have successfully achieved and maintained viral suppression through ART transmit the virus sexually to their HIV-negative partner(s).”

READ MORE: Calgary man living with HIV speaks about realities of diagnosis — ‘I was told, you are going to die’

According to Mark Thomas, an infectious disease doctor and associate professor at Auckland University, an HIV-positive sperm bank is “perfectly safe.”

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“A person with HIV infection who is on treatment and has an undetectable viral load has no virus in their blood or in their genital secretions — including their sperm — and can’t pass the infection to anyone else,” he said in a statement on the bank’s website.

Thomas says an HIV sperm bank is a “great idea” because it “opens up to everyone, including people with HIV, the joys of being a parent.”

‘So rewarding’

Damien Rule-Neal is one of the bank’s first donors. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1999, but after undergoing treatment more than 18 years ago, the virus has been confirmed “undetectable” in his body.

“I have many friends who are also living with HIV who’ve gone on to have children,” he told The Guardian.

READ MORE: Hundreds of children infected with HIV in Pakistan town, local doctor arrested

Rule-Neal told the paper that he has experienced stigma about living with HIV at work and in his personal life.

“Being able to help others on their journey is so rewarding,” he said. “But I also want to show the world that life doesn’t stop post-diagnosis and help to remove the stigma.”

HIV infections in Canada have increased over the past decade: Health Canada
HIV infections in Canada have increased over the past decade: Health Canada

According to a BBC report, Rule-Neal is healthy and married with two children and three grandchildren.

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By the numbers

According to UNAIDS, by the end of 2018, 36.2 million adults and 1.7 million children 15 years old or younger across the globe were living with HIV.

And, the agency said by the end of June 2019, 24.5 million people were accessing ART to treat the virus.

READ MORE: Are we still afraid of HIV? What the infection rates in Canada tell us

In 2018, 92 per cent of HIV-positive pregnant women received ART to prevent transmitting HIV to their babies during pregnancy and childbirth. This is compared to 49 per cent who sought therapy in 2010.

Pakistan province struggles with hundreds of cases of children infected with HIV
Pakistan province struggles with hundreds of cases of children infected with HIV

According to UNAIDS, new HIV infections have been reduced by 40 per cent since the peak in 1997.

In 2018, UNAIDS said around 1.7 million people were newly infected with HIV, a sharp decrease compared to the 2.9 million individuals newly infected in 1997.

Other medical strides

In March, a team of doctors at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Maryland reached a medical milestone when a kidney was successfully transplanted from one HIV-positive patient to another.

“A disease that was a death sentence in the 1980s has become one so well-controlled that those living with HIV can now save lives with kidney donation — that’s incredible,” Dr. Dorry Segev, a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins said in a statement.

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Segev said organ transplant is “critical” for patients with HIV who “die on the waiting list even faster than their HIV-negative counterparts.”

“This is an unbelievably exciting day for our hospital and our team, but more importantly for patients living with both HIV and end-stage organ disease,” Segev said. “For these individuals, this could mean a new chance at life.”