Bruce Richman, executive director of the Prevention Access Campaign, has fought relentlessly to share the groundbreaking, stigma-shattering evidence proving that people living with HIV who have reduced their viral loads to an undetectable level cannot transmit HIV sexually.
“We will not let people lie about us,” Richman says. “U equals U, undetectable equals untransmittable... is dismantling HIV stigma. It’s incentivizing treatment uptake and adherence. And [it] underscores the demand for universal treatment and prevention access. U equals U changes everything!”
Richman was diagnosed with HIV in 2003 but admits that constant reminders of his “infectiousness” kept him from starting treatment until his health declined in 2010. Later, after an incident where he feared he had accidentally put a partner at risk, Richman discovered the critical, but barely known, science. “I learned from my doctor that because I was undetectable, I couldn’t transmit HIV. I couldn’t pass it on. I was elated!”
His excitement soon turned to outrage when he realized “every HIV treatment site, media outlet, HIV/AIDS service organization, federal and state health department — just about everywhere — was saying that I was still a risk. And millions of people with HIV were still a risk.” The breakthrough science was not getting through to providers, policy makers, the general public, and most importantly, people living with HIV.
“To clear up the confusion,” Richman said, “a group of us living with HIV collaborated with researchers on a [U=U] consensus statement and advocacy campaign.”
The catchy, simple, and profoundly game-changing U=U campaign launched in July 2016. Within record time, the campaign has become a global movement lead by people living with HIV. Today, 500 organizations from 65 countries have signed the U=U Consensus Statement, which has been translated into 15 different languages and is endorsed by the principal investigators of the leading studies that proved the statement true.
The biggest payoff so far came September 2017, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that U=U was “backed by science.” Richman has since formed a strategic partnership with International Treatment Preparedness Coalition to equip activists across the globe in integrating the undetectable equals untransmittable message into their advocacy in order to improve access to HIV treatment and viral load testing. One of the world’s top medical journals, the Lancet, declared U equals U “the most important message of 2017 in the fight against HIV.”
Richman has acheived all of this on a shoestring budget. He remains modest and insists, “It’s the U=U community who should be recognized as the most amazing group of people and not me!” This community includes policy makers, providers, and researchers, but most of all, other people living with HIV. Looking forward, Richman says, “HIV stigma is a public health crisis, and yet many people in positions of power are still sitting on their hands, overstating risk and not sharing this life changing information! We need people to move away from controlling people with HIV and toward trusting people with HIV.”
— Carrie E. Foote, a professor of sociology at Indiana University–Purdue University, chairs the HIV Modernization Movement in Indianapolis and works with Positive Women’s Network and the Sero Project.