As HIV/AIDs experts gather in Zimbabwe for the International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa to try to find ways of stemming the spread of the virus, news of a major medical breakthrough for the virus has just been released.
The New England Journal of Medicine published an article about the discovery of an anti-retroviral drug that can almost completely eliminate transmission risk of HIV.
Men who took the drug, Truvada, before and after "risky" sexual intercourse reduce the likelihood of contracting HIV by 86 percent. The preventive treatment protocol known as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), is targeted at individuals who are at a higher risk of acquiring HIV, mainly men who have sex with men.
Dr. Cécile Tremblay, professor in the department of microbiology, infectious diseases and immunology at the Université de Montréal says, “Everybody that was taking the pill as prescribed, they were protected. She says “it has an enormous potential" if it can be made readily and cheaply available.
Presently, Truvada is approved as a treatment for HIV and AIDS, and although doctors can prescribe it as a preventive medication, many are reluctant to do so because it is legally a treatment medication. The cost of it as a preventive medicine may also not be covered by insurance plans.
Gilead Sciences Inc., which manufactures Truvada, has submitted an application for Truvada to be officially classified as a preventive medicine.
Truvada has been approved as PrEP in the U.S. since 2012, but according to a report last week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only one in three primary care doctors and nurses were aware the drug can prevent HIV transmission.
The medication can cost $1,200 a month in Canada, which Dr. Darrell Tan, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, says is “exorbitantly expensive” for most patients.
“We basically have a huge equity gap on our hands right now,” Tan says, adding many patients are not even even able to afford the deductible on the drugs.
There are concerns that the news of Truvada's effectiveness may lead men to engage in more risky behaviour, although there is no evidence for this. Tremblay says stopping HIV transmission won’t be possible just by prescribing Truvada, and there still needs to further education campaigns about how to lower the risk of contracting HIV overall, and for those at risk of HIV to be tested on a regular basis.
“It is urgent that we act on it,” she says.