Tennessee has one of the few state health departments in the South to sign onto a global campaign known as “Undetectable = Untransmittable.” When HIV is so suppressed that it’s no longer detectable, the state won’t consider the patient a transmission risk.
“We’re actually following the Centers for Disease Control’s lead,” says Dr. Pam Talley, Tennessee’s medical director for sexually transmitted diseases, referencing an August letter. “They’re the ones who’ve said there’s effectively no risk of transmission through sex” when viral counts are low.
It was once unthinkable. HIV used to be considered a death sentence. Even now, many HIV patients and those most at risk don’t know how effective treatment has become.
Tennessee’s official stance is meant to further reduce the stigma of HIV and encourage people to get tested, since some have avoided it for fear of cramping their sex life. And Talley says she hopes the possibility of becoming untransmittable would inspire those with HIV to stick with treatment, which is regionally important since more than half of the new cases now originate in the South.
“This is really an important message,” she says, “to really empower people.”
Being deemed untransmittable has lifted a mental weight for HIV advocate and patient Brady Dale Morris of Nashville.
“I mean, it brings people back to life,” he says.
But to Morris, letting people know is just the first step. Tennessee is one of dozens of states where those who know they have HIV and don’t disclose it to a sexual partner can be punished with up to a felony. Many of those laws, according to the Center for HIV Law and Policy, were passed at the height of public fear surrounding AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s.
“Those of us living with HIV are just a bad relationship away from possibly finding ourselves in jail,” Morris says.
It’s unclear whether being in treatment and untransmittable would be enough protection under current law, Morris says, which is why next he plans to help lobby the Tennessee legislature to change the law, as other states have done.