Huh? Could it be a math equation, possibly Greek letters, or is it a secret code? The above may look familiar to you, but for many of us it may not. What in the world does this mean?
Well, U=U is an HIV movement that means undetectable equals untransmittable. The campaign references people living with HIV who take daily meds and who have an undetectable level of the virus. They are not infectious. They cannot pass the virus along to someone else. Zero risk. That’s worth repeating: zero risk.
The campaign also impacts stigma around HIV. We know that talking about an issue, bringing it to light, does lower shame and discrimination. U=U can also put an end to the HIV epidemic. It breaks down barriers for more testing, brings care for those who aren’t receiving it, and creates an opportunity to get those who are HIV-positive onto meds. In a capsule, think of U=U as treatment as prevention. If everyone got tested and, if need be, went on antiretrovirals, the epidemic would end!
In 2016, innovator Bruce Richman, a former lawyer and an international philanthropist, also an HIV-positive man, launched the U=U concept under the Prevention Access Campaign. For the previous four years, the unshakable activist had studied, read, attended HIV conferences, and kept a keen eye on science, such as clinical trials and research studies — specifically three major studies: HPTN 052, PARTNER, and Opposites Attract.
U=U visibility has been cast worldwide as it’s been endorsed globally by over a thousand partners, including the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the 10th International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Science in 2019 in Mexico City, Dr. Anthony Fauci called U=U “the foundation of being able to end the epidemic.”
“I struggled with feelings of rejection and worthlessness,” laments activist Andrew Glorioso, a PrEP program manager at DAP Health in Palm Springs, Calif., who’s also HIV-positive. “U=U has been a game-changer not just for myself but for many people struggling with the stigma of being positive. Knowing with confidence that I can’t infect someone else is one of the biggest burdens lifted that comes with this disease.”
Andrew "Andy" Glorioso wearing his U=U shirt with pride.
Glorioso grew up in rural Pennsylvania. “I was your quintessential small-town gay boy. It was the early ’80s and you still had to be in the closet.” He was on the verge of coming out when he learned that he was HIV-positive. This was 1986, and Glorioso was 20. In those early days receiving a positive diagnosis meant, with utmost certainty, death. “The doctor told me that I probably wouldn’t live more than five years,” remembers Glorioso. “It was devastating, and I spent a lot of time depressed, ashamed, and isolated. I never thought I would see 30.”
This year he will leap joyfully into his 57th birthday.
Glorioso began working in the HIV field in 2000. “It was a way to give back to all those people and organizations that had helped me with medical and social services over the years,” he says. It became Glorioso’s life’s work. He’s helped people living with HIV and also those at risk of becoming positive. “I’m proud of that,” he says.
“No one who’s living with HIV wants to infect someone else, and U=U has proven that if you are adherent and mindful of your HIV treatment, you don’t have to live with fear hanging over your shoulder,” Glorioso continues. “Even if I do get rejected because of my status, I don’t take it personally, as I know there is no shame in being HIV-positive. Being able to say with confidence that I’m undetectable and that I can’t transmit HIV to someone else is freeing. It has allowed me to live my life in ways that I never thought I’d be able to.” (Indeed, Glorioso’s chest tattoo, Luceat Lux Vestra, means “Let Your Light Shine.”)
“HIV is just a virus. It’s not a judgment,” he says, and then reflects, “U=U has allowed many people living with HIV to move past their diagnosis…myself included.”
Nowadays, after talking to Glorioso, when I see U=U flashing on a digital billboard, I no longer see it as some alien language. I deem it a revolution that keeps us and our friends and family safe.
U=U positively means unprotected sex is possible, if you choose. However, be mindful of the numerous other STIs lurking out there. Be responsible — and continue to protect you and you and you!
Glorioso's chest tattoo means "Let Your Light Shine" in Latin.