Chicago Department of Public Health announced on Sept. 28 that city officials were joining the international "U=U" promotional campaign aimed both at raising awareness about the effectiveness of HIV treatment and reducing stigmatization of persons with HIV/AIDS.
"U=U" is an abbreviation for "Undetectable=Untransmittable." The campaign was launched in 2016 by the Prevention Access Campaign, an international coalition of advocates and service providers which, according to its website, united "to clarify and disseminate the revolutionary but largely unknown fact that people living with HIV on effective treatment do not sexually transmit HIV."
Providers and advocates have already referred to the strategies U=U endorses as Treatment as Prevention, or TasP. Behind those strategies is the idea that infected persons with undectable viral loads both cannot transmit HIV and can enjoy good health.
CDPH Deputy Commissioner Dave Kern said that the endorsement is part of the framework of the Getting to Zero campaign the City launched Sept. 19 aimed at eliminating new HIV infections by the year 2027, and puts the city's weight behind solid scientific evidence about the effectiveness of TasP interventions.
"It will really challenge both the public-health community and health care providers to unify around this message, and begin to move away from messaging that has been inconsistent and confusing to people living with HIV," he acknowledged. "We use the science to drive our messaging and provide correct information to residents."
Kern added, "We hope it will get people living with HIV to begin anti-retroviral therapy and other therapies to keep them and their partners healthy. Persons living with HIV oftentimes live with stigma, shame and fear, and this will help reduce that, which is critical."
Agencies and providers will likely adopt the U=U messaging in marketing campaigns promoting TasP, he said, noting that the endorsement "will also allow the city to work with the partners that we currently fund to ensure that the programs and services that they are implementing also adopt this philosophy, and that the services that they are offering are also in line with this message."
Kern emphasized, however, that the TasP interventions are only applicable with HIV-prevention, not prevention of other STIs.
"As [a public-health agency], we're still concerned about rates of sexually-transmitted diseases, but we have tools and strategies for diagnosing and treating those," he explained. "We know that, while HIV is treatable, people live with the virus their entire lives, so it's critical that we not mix our messages with U=U. With the evidence that we have, we have to embrace it but still address other public-health concerns."
In a Sept. 28 statement, CDPH Commissioner Julie Morita said, "HIV treatment works. We are proud to join U=U as we continue to fight to get to zero and ensure that every Chicagoan living with HIV receives the treatment they need to keep themselves and their partners healthy."