When Robert Sheriff learned he was positive in 1996, he and his neggiewife, Wilma, dragged a third party into their bedroom: a condom.“[Wearing it] was like trying to make love through a brick wall,” saysSheriff, 44. Six months after he started HIV meds—his viral load havingdipped to 13,000—the couple dumped the latex. “We weren’t connectinglike we used to,” Sheriff explains. “We’d already gone five yearswithout [condoms] before my diagnosis, and she never tested positive.”Indeed, Wilma, 46, remains negative today. So the Sheriffs weren’tsurprised to hear that a Spanish study of straight serodiscordantcouples in September’s Journal of AIDS showed that the rate of HIVtransmission among participants had fallen 80% since the 1996 debut ofHAART cocktails.

 The project recruited 393 mixed-status,heterosexual partners from 1991 to 2003. The couples were categorizedby their recruitment time (pre-, early- and late-HAART) and followeduntil 2003. HIV prevalence fell from 10.3% pre-HAART to 1.9% in lateHAART, whether or not the couples had had unprotected sex. Indeed, nota single negative partner of an HIVer on meds was infected. Althoughthe study examined only heterosexuals, lead author Jesus Castilla saysthe reduced transmission is “applicable to homosexual [populations]”(unprotected anal sex, however, is still considered riskier thanvaginal sex).

Castilla warns that this study shouldn’tencourage mixed-status couples to reject condoms. The likelihood oftransmission can rise with any number of sexual risk factors, includingrough sex and poor med adherence. Robert Remien, a scientist atColumbia University’s HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies,emphasizes that “transmission is always possible, regardless of viralload” and the presence of HAART. What’s more, condoms protect againstother sexually transmitted diseases, which spike HIV risk and endangerimmune systems. But the Sheriffs aren’t budging:  “I’m notadvocating unprotected sex,” Robert explains. “Wilma and I spent sixmonths apart thinking about the ramifications of this disease in ourlives. This is the decision we came to mutually, and it’s the right onefor us.”