England’s National Health Service (NHS) has confirmed that despite widespread campaigning it will be standing by its decision to not fund the HIV treatment drug PrEP.
Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, involves the use of daily anti-HIV medication (namely, a drug called Truvada) prior to sex by HIV-negative people to prevent infection of the virus.
The careful use of PrEP has been proven to reduce the risk of HIV infection to almost 0. In a study published late last year, of more than 600 people taking a daily dose of oral PrEP, followed up over a 32-month period, not one of them got HIV. Pretty incredible stuff.
The World Health Organisation has endorsed the drug and it has since become routinely available in other countries such as the United States, France, Canada and Israel. Despite this the NHS has said that it has no legal responsibility to fund the drug. Instead they have promised to fund the treatment of about 500 people over the next two years but handed over responsibility to local authorities.
PrEP isn’t cheap, costing around £5,000 a year for a private prescription or to purchase online. Without much needed funding from the NHS, PrEP simply isn’t a viable option for many high-risk demographics.
Ian Green, chief executive of the Terrence Higgins Trust, called the decision as “a shameful day for HIV prevention” and accused the NHS service, in a country that once used to lead the way in the fight against the HIV epidemic, of “washing its hands of one of the most stunning breakthroughs we’ve seen”.
The widespread implementation and positive response to PrEP does indeed indicate that it is one of the most stunning breakthroughs we’ve seen. The fact that it won’t be readily available in England to those at high risk of HIV has been seen as a significant move away from positive forward movement in the HIV epidemic. HIV, despite progress, is still a big problem in the UK with thousands of new infections happening every year and around 1 in 5 of gay and bisexual men who are living with HIV remaining undiagnosed. Although the rate of new infections has been decreasing, this progress is beginning to slow and without continued progress is in danger of plateauing.
Those in favour of PrEP believe that this slowing in progress could be rectified or at least aided by the widespread availability of PrEP as an HIV prevention method and the general air around the NHS’ decision to not fund the drug is one of disappointment.