Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is a way to prevent HIV infection for people who do not have HIV but who are at high risk of getting it by taking the pill everyday. When someone is exposed to HIV through sex or injection drug use, PrEP can work to keep the virus from establishing a permanent infection. Individuals who take 7 PrEP pills per week, have an estimated level of protection of 99%. It is a powerful prevention tool combined with condoms.
In the United States, PrEP became available in 2012 by the FDA and can be accessed in most clinics and hospitals and is free under most insurance plans. As of 2017, there are an estimated 136,000 people currently on the drug for HIV prevention. This is not the case in the United Kingdom. As a part of a research project for my MPH degree I traveled to London, England to meet with members from the LGBT community, advocates and public health professionals and to learn more about access to PrEP under the National Healthcare System (NHS) England. Currently, PrEP is not available under NHS England even though HIV continues to be a prevalent problem in England, namely among men who have sex with men (MSM) where approximately 54% of the total of MSM population were diagnosed in 2015. England is however enrolling 10,000 people over 3 years through the PrEP IMPACT trial.
Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland are also a component of the NHS. Wales has commenced their PrEPared Wales project, which provided information on where to access PrEP in the country. Scotland is currently the only country in the UK that offers a full PrEP provision through their NHS. Northern Ireland currently has no provision of PrEP.
The NHS is widely regarded as a remarkable system, allowing UK citizens to access certain free healthcare services. England has had some shortcomings however when it comes to preventing HIV and I was interested in learning more. I visited the Terrance Higgins Trust (THT), a British charity that campaigns on and provides services relating to HIV and sexual health. In particular, they aim to end the transmission of HIV in the UK, to support people living with HIV (PLWH), and decrease stigma around HIV. I met Greg Owen, the founder of iWantPrEPNow, a website that explains why it is important for HIV protection, who might consider PrEP, what you need to do before you start, where to buy it online, and how to take it. I also met with Will Nutland, who works alongside Greg and is the founder of Prepster, a guide and movement to safely buying PrEP. Both websites have experienced a lot of traffic since the IMPACT Trial began in October 2017. The trial seems like a step in the right direction when it comes to accessing PrEP, this is not the attitude for many and there continues to be a debate. While there is significant evidence from other trials that demonstrates PrEP is an effective HIV prevention tool, many people believe that NHS will not endorse PrEP after the trial is complete.
I asked Liam Beattie, also a member of the THT team, why he believes NHS England did not endorse PrEP under its guidelines. He believed that it was because of 1. homophobia among the NHS and 2. the media. Liam was recently interviewed on BBC News. During the interview, PrEP was categorized as a “controversial drug,” which paints a negative light on the topic from the get-go. While England is well-developed and progressive in so many ways, HIV is still known as the “middle-aged gay male virus.” THT and other organizations continue to develop new marketing tools and programs in order to target women, transgender persons, and people of color to visit a sexual health clinic and get tested. Taking PrEP is an advantage for not only the individuals health but the overall cost of healthcare. Many are hopeful that in the future, the NHS will work with organizations like THT to promote PrEP and other educational resources to prevent HIV.