A drug which could “mark the beginning of the end for HIV transmission in England” has been hailed a “no-brainer” by researchers evaluating the financial impact it could have here in the UK.
The study, published in the Lancet Infectious Diseases, analysed how much HIV prevention drug PrEP could save the NHS if it was rolled out nationally.
It concluded that £1 billion would be saved over the next 80 years by offering the drug, which works by blocking HIV when it enters the body. It’s also thought the drug could prevent one in four HIV cases with men who have sex with men.
Lead researcher Dr Alison Rodger, from University College London, told the BBC: “Not only is it a highly effective treatment, it will save money. It’s a no-brainer, so it’s a good thing to do.”
In light of the news, and because PrEP is currently being made available to eligible patients via a trial on the NHS, here are six things you should know about the drug.
1. What is it?
PrEP stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis. It is a course of drugs taken before sex to reduce a person’s risk of contracting HIV. The idea is that a HIV-negative person would take it to stop them from contracting the infection from a partner who is HIV-positive.
The main brand of PrEP is called Truvada, there is also a generic version of the drug supplied on the NHS containing two medicines (tenofovir and emtricitabine).
In some cases the drug is taken daily, while in others it is taken before sex - this all depends on a person’s ‘risk profile’, in other words: how at risk they are from contracting HIV.
2. What is the success rate?
Recent statistics published by Public Health England (PHE) revealed new cases of HIV in gay and bisexual men fell by 21% in the UK in the past year alone. PHE said PrEP was a contributing factor in the downturn of diagnoses.
In most major studies involving the drug, no one became infected if they took PrEP as recommended, according to the Terrence Higgins Trust. It’s worth noting, however, that if you don’t take it correctly it might not work.
3. Who is eligible for PrEP?
If you’re at high risk of developing HIV, you are eligible for PrEP. According to the Terrence Higgins Trust, this includes gay and bisexual men, trans people, those in a relationship with a HIV-positive partner, and black Africans.
4. Is it available on the NHS?
The drug is already available on the NHS in Scotland and Wales. On 1 September 2017, NHS England began its PrEP trial which offers the drug to 10,000 people at risk from HIV infection over the next three years.
Ian Green, CEO of the Terrence Higgins Trust, said the power of PrEP must not be underestimated. He previously wrote in a blog post on HuffPost UK: “We could be marking the beginning of the end for HIV transmission in England once PrEP is being put to use alongside other HIV prevention tools, such as condoms, testing and treatment.”
Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said: “This major new intervention should complement and supercharge the wide-ranging and increasingly successful effort to prevent HIV.
“It’s another milestone in more than three decade’s worth of progress in tackling one of humanity’s major health challenges.”
5. Where can you get PrEP currently?
Almost every sexual health clinic in England is expected to take part in the trial, so people will be able to enrol at their local clinic when it’s ready.
“The first clinics are starting to enrol participants and those wishing to get involved should visit the trial website to find out when their local clinic opens,” a spokesperson from NHS England told HuffPost UK.
Around 70 clinics including those in London, Brighton, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Sheffield are expected to open their doors in October and November. The remaining clinics across the rest of the country will follow closely over the coming months
An up-to-date list of clinics that are now recruiting for the trial can be found here.
The NHS warned people to only enrol at one clinic. This is because if you sign up to more than one, you might take a place on the trial that could have gone to someone else.
According to the NHS, the research trial will operate differently to the way people usually access sexual health services: “Participants will need to meet eligibility criteria to be involved in the trial and read and sign paperwork before they start. They will also be asked to visit the trial clinic every three months for HIV and STI tests.”
The drug is also available privately from some clinics.
6. Does it protect against other sexually-transmitted infections?
In short, no. PrEP doesn’t protect against other STIs. It is advised that you still take precautions (use condoms) to protect against infections such as gonorrhoea, chlamydia, syphilis and hepatitis C.