THElivia and Amy are sitting outside in the shade, trying to escape the humidity of early summer in New Zealand. 10-month-old Amy babbles happily in the background as her mother talks. She is healthy, happy, and oblivious to her world-first condition: one of the few babies born from the first sperm bank to HIV-positive donors.
The bank, Sperm Positive, opened in New Zealand in 2019 in an effort to reduce the stigma faced by HIV-positive people and raise awareness that, with treatment, the virus is undetectable and untransmittable. Grab international headlines when it was released, but it’s been more than a publicity stunt. Two years later, the bank is paying off.
“For me, it wasn’t about that,” says Olivia, referring to the more controversial implications of the sperm bank launch. “For me, I just wanted to have a baby…. [and] she is the cheepest, happiest and funniest girl. “
Victor, one of the bank’s donors, had thought that having a child would be impossible for him. “When I was diagnosed in 2013, I felt like something like this could never happen, that I could ever have children,” she says. Hearing about the bank, “I saw this opportunity – one, to give the couple the opportunity … to have a child and make their dreams come true. And secondly, to prove to myself through testing that it is actually possible, regardless of your status. ”After facilitating two successful donor pregnancies, he and his partner are now looking for a surrogate mother to try to have a child of their own.
The online sperm bank matches prospective parents with donors and was established as a collaboration between the New Zealand AIDS Foundation, Positive Woman Inc and Body Positive. Jane Bruning of Positive Women Inc says that since its launch two years ago, the organization has “been overwhelmed by the number of inquiries we have received from people interested in receiving more information.”
Developed in part as an awareness project, it aims to try to bring home the message “undetectable = untransmissible”: that as HIV treatments reduce viral levels in the blood of undetectable people, positive people no longer they run the risk of passing it on to healthy couples.
The finding “has been proven time and again for more than 10 years,” says Dr Mark Thomas, associate professor at the University of Auckland and a physician specializing in HIV infectious diseases at the Auckland District Health Board. Three large long-term multinational studies They have followed some 3,000 sexually active and mixed couples with HIV status for years while they were not using condoms, and they did not find a single case of transmission when the man was using suppressive medications.
Despite this, some countries remain wary of reproductive advice for men with HIV: CDC’s advice as of 2017 was to consider the use of PrEP and ‘sperm washing’ in addition to suppressive medications. Thomas says that reflects a lot of caution, rather than a real risk that a parent could infect the child. There has never been a confirmed case of an HIV-positive child infected through the father’s sperm and born to an HIV-negative mother, he says.
Thomas says that while the sperm bank has made headlines, the deeper and continuing story is that those who test positive still often experience stigma and discrimination, in housing, employment, medical treatment, and their care. families or communities.
In the early days of the epidemic, when it primarily affected gay men, “it was one stigma on another,” says Thomas, who began treating HIV and AIDS patients at Auckland hospital in the 1980s. The 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, it was an almost universally fatal diagnosis. So sex, death and homosexuality mix [to create] really terrible stigma. “While it has improved since then, societal attitudes still do not reflect the huge advances in HIV treatment: today,” maybe with a pill at night or a couple of pills a day … the HIV never impacts their lives again, medically. “
The fear of that stigma remains strong for some of the bank’s donors, including Victor. “As far as my condition is concerned, I’m still very much in the closet, it’s not something you’re yelling at the four winds,” he says. He has only revealed it to his partner and a handful of close friends. “Sometimes I have my days where I just think, I really, really screwed it up. It is not something that I have to [can] be proud, but I’ve learned to live with it and keep it to myself. “
The University of Otago New Zealand’s People Living with HIV Stigma Index conducted interviews with 188 HIV-positive New Zealanders last year. Despite the fact that all the participants were receiving antiretroviral treatment, a third reported experiencing social stigma related to their condition, including gossip, cruel comments and verbal harassment. More than half reported stigma in healthcare settings. Some reported losing their jobs and more than half had experienced depression, anxiety and insomnia in the past year.
“When my parents found out I had HIV, they actively wanted me to use separate plates, to use ‘tongs’ when handling food in the kitchen. It made me feel very dirty and very depressed, ”a 27-year-old told the study. After revealing to a landlord that she and her partner were HIV-positive, “they told us to get out of the apartment,” said one woman.
“When I have disclosed my HIV positive status to the guys I have dated, I would never hear from them again or they would block my social media apps,” wrote another man.
“I’m afraid of being rejected,” Victor says, but the children he has helped create have been a bright spot. With the news that another couple’s baby had been born safely, she says, she felt a wave of joy. “It was so happy to be able to see something that you never thought was going to be possible. And just to see, hear how much joy this new little being has brought to the family of the couple that I help with. Really beautiful “.
The names of sperm donors, children and mothers have been changed to protect the identity of donors who have not publicly disclosed their HIV status.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism