Truvada PrEP, a pill that blocks HIV infections, has been available in Australia through clinical trials for over a year, and the results are highly encouraging.
PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, is not a vaccine, but rather an antiretroviral drug that is up to 92% effective at preventing HIV infection when taken regularly. The pill is intended for people who are HIV-negative but who are at high risk for exposure or infection. While these qualities are certainly not unique to gay and bisexual men, the LGBT community is often insular, which can lead to higher rates of HIV among sexually active members.
Three trials of PrEP are currently taking place in Australia, in the cities of Melbourne, Brisbane, and Sydney. In Melbourne, participants have been taking the drug for 15 months so far. The Sydney trials have begun more recently, but thus far, there has not been a single case of HIV infection among participants taking the pill daily.
Daniel McPhail, a participant in Melbourne, says that taking PrEP allows him to have control over his own sexual health, rather than relying on a partner to use a condom. While a barrier method such as a condom is still a critical step in preventing STDs, a pill like PrEP is an added level of comfort and control. He says it’s “rare for gay guys in most instances to wake up and not think about something to do with HIV after sex,” and that PrEP reduces the anxiety often attached to sex for gay and bisexual men.
In addition to its intended function, PrEP can lead to reduced bone density and also impact kidney function. The magnitude of these effects varies from person to person, but some, like McPhail, say that the minimal side effects are well worth the peace of mind that comes from taking PrEP.
Trials of PrEP have been going on internationally for some time now, and men who are not part of the trials sometimes purchase it online at steep prices, up to $12,000 per year. It will take time for the drug to pass through the required approval channels, and until then, LGBTQ health workers hope that the trials will be expanded to expedite the impact. Once it is approved, the hope is that governments will begin to subsidize PrEP so that it can be taken by those who need it most.
Gay and bisexual men are certainly not the only people at risk of contracting HIV, and with current medical advances, being HIV-positive is no longer a death sentence. However, reducing rates of transmission will be highly beneficial to the population at large, and specifically to the LGBT community, where HIV anxiety reigns and PrEP is a much-needed safety net.