'Just ecstatic': Two Kiwi women pregnant with sperm donated by HIV-positive men

Two Kiwi women are expecting children after inseminating themselves with sperm from HIV-positive men.

The donors are "just ecstatic" Jane Bruning of HIV support group Positive Women told The AM Show on Thursday, believing they'd never be fathers thanks to the stigma HIV still carries.

"People think that when you're living with HIV that if you have sex with someone and you have children, you're going to pass on HIV," Bruning, who has been HIV-positive for more than 30 years, said. 

In 2008, the first-ever HIV-positive patient was cured. Since the 1990s, many with the virus - which once was basically a death sentence - have been able to live relatively normal lives thanks to anti-retroviral medication. 

And if the virus is undetectable in the blood, it can't be transmitted at all. 

"The science has been out since 2008," said Bruning. "Unfortunately in reality it hasn't been acknowledged that anybody who is HIV-positive, who is on medications and their viral load is undetectable, they cannot transmit HIV sexually, to the child or any other way, really."

In 2018 the AIDS Foundation did a survey which found 88 percent of Kiwis wouldn't consider a relationship with someone who's HIV-positive, 38 percent wouldn't want an HIV-positive flatmate and half wouldn't want their kids to play with anyone carrying the virus. 

"Unfortunately the thing that holds it back is the stigma, and that's a major problem," said Bruning. "There's still a huge amount of stigma."

Last year sperm bank Sperm Positive was launched - donors are HIV-positive, but have undetectable levels of the virus in their blood. Dozens have reportedly signed up to donate, and this week it was revealed two women are now pregnant as a result. 

"We wanted to do something that really highlighted that things have changed. We could have just done some posters or whatever, but we had to do something that was going to grab people's attention," said Bruning.

"Our aim wasn't really to set up a sperm bank, the aim was to highlight, and so we've been pleasantly surprised by the uptake."

Jane Bruning.
Jane Bruning. Photo credit: The AM Show

One of the mothers, a Northland woman called Natasha who's due in February, told Stuff it took only two goes. 

"Sometimes people are trying for about six months to a few years, and they still aren't successful," she said, expecting it to take six months to a year at least. 

She said it was "nice" to give an HIV-positive man a chance to be a dad. Bruning said unlike many donors, the fathers will be involved in their children's lives, though not on a day-to-day basis. 

"The dads are absolutely ecstatic... These men didn't ever think they would have children."

HIV is fairly uncommon in New Zealand, with just a few dozen cases of local transmission  per year, according to the NZ AIDS Foundation. About three-quarters of diagnosed cases are in people who contracted it overseas.

The NZ AIDS Foundation says most transmission happens before a person knows they're infected. Over time the viral load drops, and it can be reduced to undetectable levels through medication. 

But even amongst the gay community, there's a knowledge gap - with nearly a third of gay men unaware anti-retroviral drugs can prevent an HIV-positive person passing the virus on via sex, and one-in-six unaware there are preventative medications which reduce the risk by 99 percent. 

Bruning says while the AIDS Foundation does great work with the gay community with the $2.1 million in funding it gets from the Ministry of Health, there's little support out there for heterosexual people living with HIV - Positive Women just one of two organisations with that focus. 

"The New Zealand AIDS Foundation does a really great job in regards to men having sex with men, the gay community and bisexuals - they're funded largely for that. But in regards to the heterosexual community, there's organisations like ours... we get $116,000 from the Ministry of Health [a year]. We've been told that it's probably going to stop because the prevalence of HIV is not [widespread]."