THE BLOG

This World AIDS Day, We're Calling for the NHS to Supply Drugs That Could Thousands of Lives

01/12/2015 15:05 GMT | Updated 01/12/2016 10:12 GMT

Today millions of people will mark World AIDS Day. We will show our support for people living with HIV and commemorate those who have lost their lives to this virus.

There is no denying that we have seen incredible advances in treatment in recent years. In the UK people living with HIV who have effective treatment have a normal life expectancy, only 0.5% of children born to HIV positive mothers will have the virus and only 0.3% of people with HIV develop AIDS.

However, in the UK, more people than ever before are living with HIV and around 6,000 people are newly diagnosed each year. We can be in no doubt that in the fight against HIV, there is still a long way to go - particularly to improve prevention.

That is why, this World AIDS Day, I am calling for the HIV prevention drugs Truvada, commonly called PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis), to be made available on the NHS.

PrEP is a breakthrough treatment, intended for people in groups which are at high risk of getting HIV. It involves taking a course of HIV drugs before sex and trials have shown extremely positive results. The 'PROUD' study carried out in partnership with 12 NHS Trusts, showed that Truvada, which is already used to treat people with HIV, reduced the risk of infection by 86%. Many hope that, if it were made widely available to those who are at high risk of coming into contact with the virus, it could drastically reduce the numbers of people who become HIV positive.

One concern which has been raised is that using PrEP will lead to reduced condom use - and therefore higher numbers of other sexually transmitted infections. However PROUD also found that there was no difference in the number of men diagnosed with other STIs between those on PrEP and those not on PrEP.

As well as the human cost of HIV, treatment of the virus places a huge burden on scarce NHS resources. However, studies suggest providing PrEP to high-risk groups is cheaper than the costs of treating people once they have caught the virus. It is also only needed for as long as people think they are at sufficient risk of infection.

PrEP is increasingly being adopted in health systems around the world. It is central to New York's new HIV strategy, which set a target of near-zero new infections by 2020. However in the UK, the NHS is delaying its introduction until the results of its own studies are released. But with numbers of infections continuing to rise, I fear this delay means we are missing the opportunity to prevent thousands of new cases.

It is time to stop postponing a decision on this and start listening to the evidence. It is shocking to think that there is a drug available which has been shown to be effective in preventing HIV infections but which is still not available on the NHS.

While making PrEP available is ultimately a decision for NHS England, rather than for politicians, I hope they will take steps to make PrEP available to people considered to be at high risk of catching the virus, without further delay.

This could have an enormous impact on the lives of countless numbers of people in high-risk groups and be a vast improvement on our current approach, which wastes NHS resources and has let down far too many people.

Norman Lamb is the Lib Dem MP for North Norfolk and party spokesman for health