Why it is important to have your HIV viral load checked

A client being tested for HIV

While we have shared a lot of information on HIV, it is important to note that Zimbabwe has 1,3 million people living with HIV.

It is important to start on and adhere to anti-retroviral treatment if you are HIV-positive. After six months of being on treatment, you need to start having your viral load checked.

Viral load refers to the amount of virus in the blood. It is measured by a simple blood test which also shows how well antiretroviral treatment is working at protecting your immune system from other potential illnesses.

An “undetectable” diagnosis means that the level of HIV in your body is so low (under 40 copies/ml) that it is non-infectious to other people.

You might also hear healthcare workers talking about “viral suppression” (where HIV levels are under 200 copies/ml) — if you have had either of these diagnoses then there is zero risk of you passing on HIV.

It usually takes the body a while to adjust to new medicines and the same goes for HIV treatment. Simply being on treatment does not automatically mean that you are undetectable and it is very common for viral loads to fluctuate, particularly early on after starting a new treatment regime.

You might look and feel perfectly healthy, but simply feeling fine is not a good indicator of what your viral load looks like. The only way to know that you are undetectable is through regular viral load monitoring.

It is recommended that you should be taking treatment for at least six months, and then have your viral load monitored every two to four months by a healthcare professional to know that you are undetectable.

It is important to remember that, even if you have an undetectable viral load, HIV is still present in your body.

This means that if you stop taking treatment then your viral load can increase — affecting your long-term health and making HIV transmittable again.

Can everyone living with HIV achieve an undetectable viral load?

Not everyone living with HIV can achieve an undetectable viral load and this is usually down to factors out of someone’s control.

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For some people, it might be tricky to find a treatment regime that agrees with them, while in some places, viral load testing may not always be readily available.

If this is the case for you, it is essential that you still take your medication exactly as prescribed and that you keep regular appointments with your doctor. While you may not be “undetectable”, you can still remain healthy.

If you are not sure about your viral load status then there are still other ways to reduce the risk of HIV transmission among your sexual partners.

Your partners may want to consider taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to keep themselves HIV-negative.

Using condoms will prevent both HIV transmission and other sexually transmitted infections.

If you are not able to get your viral load monitored regularly, it is important not to assume that you are undetectable.

If you are able to remain undetectable under the correct treatment and monitoring pattern, the great news is that you do not have to worry about passing HIV onto your sexual partner!

Being undetectable also means that your body is in good health and that your immune system is working well at defending itself from daily germs.

Maintaining your treatment and monitoring routine is key to remaining undetectable, but is also a good way to ensure that you stay healthy.

If  you are HIV-negative and your partner is undetectable, condoms are still the only form of protection that also prevent other STIs and unwanted pregnancies.

You may also want to look into PrEP as an extra precaution against HIV.

Whatever decision you make about protection, it is still best to regularly test for HIV to check that your status remains negative.

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