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The Partner study itself comes with a series of warnings about what exactly the study has really found about undetectable viral loads.Researchers don’t recommend that undetectable gay and bi men have sex without the usual methods of protection, for example.So they put in place ways of identifying whether the undetectable partner had transmitted it to them.This is the first time any study has so comprehensively investigated the risk of anal sex among men who have sex with men.To join, couples had to say up front that they sometimes don’t use protection—meaning no condoms, and the HIV-negative partner could not be on a daily Pr EP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, regimen.In an analysis presented to the world in March at the annual Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Boston, the study’s researchers also excluded any couple in which the HIV-positive partner’s viral load had gone above 200 copies per milliliter of blood.That’s the threshold at which they declared a person stopped being “undetectable.” Perhaps unnerving for anyone trying to keep their viral load down, that was the case for 16 percent of couples.
The first thing to understand about the Partner study is that some of the participants did contract HIV.Based on previous studies, researchers knew that odds were some of the negative partners would get HIV.While some of this could be used as cover by skeptics, it also means positive people are left to understand and explain all of this science to a world that continues to stigmatize (and in some cases, criminalize) anyone with HIV.Of the 1,100-plus couples taking part in the Partner study out of Europe, 40 percent are gay.
The landmark Partner study that everyone is talking about—which tracked HIV transmission risk through condomless sex if the HIV-positive partner is on suppressive antiretroviral medication—has so far found not even one case of an HIV-positive person with an undetectable viral load transmitting the virus to a partner.
But people in your everyday life may still be a little disbelieving.