Murray Penner is the North American Executive Director for the Prevention Access Campaign, the organization which kicked off and continues to spearhead the worldwide U=U campaign.
Why is the U=U message particularly relevant here in the Baltimore area?
The U=U message is relevant for everyone living with HIV. And with approximately 18,000 residents in the Baltimore metropolitan area living with HIV, it is critical to spread the word so they know that anyone living with HIV who is on effective treatment and achieves an undetectable viral load (meaning the level of virus in their bloodstream is suppressed to such low levels that it can’t be detected with most laboratory tests) cannot transmit HIV to their sexual partners.
To what extent do you feel U=U has been embraced by our community?
Many people who know about U=U have expressed that it has lifted a huge weight off their shoulders. People with HIV can love, have sex, and have babies without the worry of transmitting HIV. The message is life-changing and reduces HIV stigma. But far too many people do not know about the message nor do some embrace it. I continue to hear exciting reports from people in the Baltimore area. It is uplifting to see leadership from organizations and health departments in the region. This is indicative of a successful campaign.
How does the U=U Maryland campaign compare to some other U=U efforts around the country and world?
The U=U Maryland campaign has been very strong and has been one of the early adopters of the U=U message. It is unusual in the U.S., unfortunately, to see such progressive efforts to get this life-changing information out to people with HIV and the general public. We at the Prevention Access Campaign are very impressed with, and grateful to, the U=U Maryland campaign for being innovative, creative, and bold. We need bold leaders in the U.S. to demonstrate how impactful this message can be!
With the worldwide U=U campaign now in its third year, what do you feel is the most important thing people still need to know about it?
The U=U campaign now is endorsed by nearly 950 organizations in 99 countries, including 15 state and 28 local health departments in the U.S. (both Maryland and Baltimore are included), as well as several country, regional and local health agencies throughout the world. The movement is one of the most successful grass-roots advocacy movements in the history of the HIV epidemic, but many more people need to know about it. The most important thing people need to know is that U=U is a proven concept.
What we must do is use the U=U message to encourage universal access to treatment. In the U.S., nearly 500,000 people with HIV are not virally suppressed. This is unacceptable and the U=U message can be harnessed to help improve the number of people who benefit from U=U. It is clearly difficult for many people to access treatment and this means we must support PLWH in new and innovative ways to ensure they have the means to access treatment. This is especially true for people who traditionally don’t access healthcare and who have co-occurring challenges in their lives. And we know that HIV disproportionately is impacting Black and Latinx Americans, young people, transgender individuals, and people who use drugs. We must innovate our programs to ensure that we change these unacceptable statistics about viral suppression.
The other message that is associated with the U=U movement is that HIV stigma is a public health emergency and often kills people. We can also use the U=U message to educate that people living with HIV can now live normal and healthy lives and that HIV transmission can be eliminated if we can achieve universal access to treatment and viral suppression. Finally, HIV cannot be transmitted through casual contact and until we eliminate many misconceptions about HIV transmission, we will not succeed in ending new HIV transmissions.
There is much work to do and U=U is the foundation of ending the HIV epidemic.