So you may have heard people say they are ‘undetectable’ or have an undetectable viral load. So what does this really mean?
When a person is first diagnosed with HIV, 2 tests are carried on the person in addition to several other tests. These are the HIV Viral Load, and the CD4 count. The HIV Viral Load tells you how much of the virus is in your body, and the CD4 counts gives an indication of your immune status, or simply put, how well your body is able to fight disease.
The goal of HIV treatment is to reduce the number of HIV viruses in your body (HIV Viral load) and to increase your CD4 count (your body’s ability to fight off disease). So what exactly is undetectable?
Undetectable means that, when an HIV positive person is tested for their viral load, the test is unable to detect any viruses in the blood. This is because, the number of viruses in the blood is so low that, the test is unable to pick it up. Typically, a person is said to be undetectable when they have less than 50 copies/ml of HIV in their blood, or in some jurisdictions, less than 20 copies/ml of HIV in their blood.
Does this mean an undetectable person no longer has HIV? The answer is No.
Even if your HIV Viral load is undetectable, it means you still have the virus, however, since you are on effective medication, the number of viruses in the blood/body have been reduced to the point where it cannot be detected on testing and the virus is unable to cause much damage to the body.
Are there any benefits of being undetectable?
Yes! According to recent studies (eg. PARTNER2 study), being undetectable for at least 6 months means that if you continue to take your medication as prescribed and remain undetectable, you cannot transmit the HIV virus to your partner even if you have sex without a condom! However, to protect yourself from contracting other sexually transmitted infections, it is advised that you use a condom everytime you have sex.
Another benefit is that the virus takes much longer to cause damage to your body systems, and you live a nearly normal life.
Remember that for you to remain undetectable, it is necessary you take your medications exactly as prescribed, as an interruption in treatment may cause your viral load to rise again.
So next time you hear undetectable, just remember, U=U!