I don’t remember how I first heard about Bruce Richman but it was surely on social media. It was the summer of 2016. Bruce had started cropping up everywhere. He seemed charismatic, passionate, informed. I asked him for an interview. He obliged and we talked for an hour or so by phone. I posted the resulting interview on August 10, 2016 under the title “Bob Leahy talks to Bruce Richman, the man behind Undetectable = Uninfectious.” The same day we also published an editorial “PositiveLite.com endorses the Undetectable = Uninfectious message“; you can read that story here.
We were the first organization in Canada to sign on. It was at a time when almost every website you looked at told the inquisitive that people with HIV posed a risk to others, albeit a small one, even when their viral load was undetectable. The Swiss Statement, HPTN 052 and latterly PARTNER had come and gone, their science either dismissed, played down or even ignored. It was infuriating for those of us who believed a sea change had occurred, game-changing developments from the world of science that had virtually zero impact.
It felt like the system had failed us.
PositiveLite.com had long been a proponent of treatment as prevention (TasP) when it was being vilified by many in Canada outside of B.C. I saw the Prevention Access Campaign, originator of U = U, as the kind of progressive, science-savvy ally we had long looked for. In August last year, we signed on to what was then called the Undetectable = Uninfectious campaign; the name changed shortly thereafter to avoid the potentially stigmatizing suggestion that those NOT undetectable were in fact infectious.
Then began a difficult few months to convince others in Canada that U really did equal U. True, we had early successes like CPPN joining us. But we also rubbed up against organizations like Ontario's GMSH who were in the process of finalizing a sexual health campaign that said yes, poz guys who are undetectable were indeed a risk. Meanwhile, our publisher at the time, John McCullagh, was instrumental in getting CATIE, arguably the most influential name in Canada, on board. That persuaded others, including GMSH. (They subsequently produced an exemplary U=U=friendly campaign.) But these were difficult times with one hard fought battle after another, here and in other corners of the globe.
My own work became more and more international in scope.
Our efforts to bring websites that were out of date into reality were helped by the gathering momentum of the U=U movement in both Canada and elsewhere. (Those efforts continue, aggravatingly, to this day.) Meanwhile, as the lead Canadian organizer I had established a good working relationship with Bruce Richman, who lives in New York, and invited him to a series of personal appearances here.. In March of 2017 Brice embarked on a series of speaking engagements with me, beginning in Toronto and Montreal and later in Gananoque, Ontario. They brought home the power of both the message and our ability to deliver it in a way that was incredibly impactful, one that connected with people living with HIV particularly on a very emotional level.
Fast forward to July 2017 and a triumphant explosion on the scene at IAS2017 by U=U supporters in Paris, which got lots of good press and even made it to CNN. (I documented the adventure at some length here.)
The campaign meanwhile has taken fire around the globe. It now has over 350 community partners from 45 countries. The term “U = U” has become part of the HIV lexicon. But much work remains.
It’s been a wild ride personally, one that has taken my life in new directions. It’s been gratifying too to see GIPA so patently at work in a campaign entirely driven by people living with HIV – incredibly good people too, talented beyond measure, whom I’m privileged to call my friends.
It’s also been an emotional ride in a way that I - that we - struggle to understand. One day I will write about that, about why this year has brought me so close to tears so many times.
The video which follows is something I choke up about a little too. I put it together to mark our one year anniversary with the campaign. It’s a random selection from a much larger body of work, images that reflect what people and organizations around the world have done with the U = U message.