The Director of the Dublin Gay Switchboard, Adam Shanley, has said that there should be a nationwide awareness campaign about the HIV preventative drug known as a PrEP. Speaking to The Circular.org, Mr.Shanley said he believes that all sexually active adults need to know about PrEP and its existence in light of the record number of new HIV cases diagnosed in Ireland in 2016.
“The most up-to-date figures we have available”, says Mr.Shanley, “show that in 2016 there were over 500 cases of HIV confirmed with rates rising continuously since 2011. If this trend continues, the figures for 2017 and 2018 will continue to increase”. Of those new cases, 77% percent were male and 23% female.
Mr.Shanley believes that whilst a large proportion of the gay community is aware of the drug and its function, he says that the wider heterosexual and bisexual communities are not familiar with its existence and benefits.
PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is taken in tablet form and is clinically proven to stop HIV- negative people contracting the virus. According to The World Health Organisation, PrEP should be available to anyone at substantial risk for HIV. That might include gay and bisexual men, trans people who have sex with men, people with a sexual partner with HIV who has been on effective treatment for less than 6 months, as well as other people who are concerned about reducing their risk of contracting HIV. And contrary to some reports, the drug can also be taken by women who might have condomless sex.
In Ireland, PrEP has been available by private prescription only since December 2017. The drug is not available on the medical card and it is also not covered by the drug refund purchase scheme. PrEP works by preventing HIV from replicating inside your body. If you’re taking PrEP correctly and are exposed to HIV, there will be enough drug present to prevent HIV from being able to establish an infection.
Billy, who does not wish for his surname to be used, is a PrEP user who admits that anecdotally, many members of the gay community believe that users of PrEP are less likely to use condoms. “I think there is a stigma attached to those of us who are using PrEP because people think we only care about not catching HIV and don’t worry as much about STIs which are curable.”
Similarly to the Gay Switchboard, Billy feels that PrEP awareness is not just a homosexual issue. “In general, we all need to be tuned into our sexual health”, he says, “but I do think a lot of heterosexual women are more concerned with becoming pregnant than thinking about the chances of being infected with HIV”.
Billy also worries about the cost implications associated with PrEp. “For my monthly supply, I pay around €80. But, if you order online from outside of Ireland, 4 months supply can be got for the same price. However, be doing it officially, I am ensuring that any possible PrEP side effects are monitored such as kidney function. I am also monitored every three months for STIs unlike those who are having it sent from overseas”. However, according to the HSE, it may be next year before people looking to protect themselves with PrEP will be able to claim a partial refund for doing so.