Is HIV a death sentence?

No. HIV is not a death sentence. It may feel like this though when you first find out you have HIV. A lot of myths and misconceptions have been attached to HIV, but here’s what people living with HIV need to know.

If it was a death sentence, I would not be here writing this 12 years after my HIV diagnosis. I would not be attending forums and conferences with those who started the HIV movement 40 years ago and who are ageing well with HIV.


undetectable viral load

A level of viral load that is too low to be picked up by the particular viral load test being used or below an agreed threshold (such as 50 copies/ml or 200 copies/ml). An undetectable viral load is the first goal of antiretroviral therapy.


Social attitudes that suggest that having a particular illness or being in a particular situation is something to be ashamed of. Stigma can be questioned and challenged.

Undetectable = Untransmittable (U=U)

U=U stands for Undetectable = Untransmittable. It means that when a person living with HIV is on regular treatment that lowers the amount of virus in their body to undetectable levels, there is zero risk of passing on HIV to their partners. The low level of virus is described as an undetectable viral load. 


A micro-organism composed of a piece of genetic material (RNA or DNA) surrounded by a protein coat. To replicate, a virus must infect a cell and direct its cellular machinery to produce new viruses.


viral load

Measurement of the amount of virus in a blood sample, reported as number of HIV RNA copies per milliliter of blood plasma. Viral load is an important indicator of HIV progression and of how well treatment is working. 


Like with any epidemic, we know that many lives have been lost and we still see many unnecessary new HIV infections. We also see those who have not accessed treatment succumbing to AIDS-related illnesses. This could scare anyone and be a cause for alarm.

However, given how far HIV treatment has advanced, you can put your mind at ease.

It is now routinely recommended for those who test HIV positive to start treatment as soon as possible. Studies have shown that those who start treatment early after they test positive and keep taking their treatment as prescribed have a higher chance of better health outcomes.

When you are adherent to treatment, you usually achieve an undetectable viral load. This is low levels of HIV virus in the body that it cannot be passed to your sexual partner. It also means you can have a child without worry of transmission. This is known as ‘Undetectable = Untransmittable’ (U=U).

Many people living with HIV say that a strong support system plays a key role. Being part of a support group of people living with HIV or having friends and family that are there for you is vital. When you understand that HIV, like other lifelong conditions, is manageable, it takes the burden off your shoulders.

A good diet and exercising makes things better, like for everyone else.

With HIV-based stigma and discrimination still being a challenge, it is important to get information from the right sources. It needs to be from a healthcare worker who understands HIV or from reliable information sites such as national HIV organisations in your country, or the World Health Organization.

Self-stigma brings about negative mental health. Developing a positive attitude towards life gives you the tools to live a long and healthy life. Resilience and grit are necessary for good health and wellbeing.

HIV is only a small part of your life. You have so much more to live for.

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