Daily drugs to prevent the infection of HIV are being offered to gay men across Manchester as part of a ground-breaking national medical study.
The clinical trial, which is currently recruiting participants from the Manchester Centre for Sexual Health, is looking into the effect of a daily pill that could reduce the risk of someone becoming infected with HIV.
There are already drugs being taken the morning after people believe they may have been exposed to HIV – known as Post-Exposure Prophlaxis or PEPs.
PEPs are often mistakenly and dangerously being dubbed an HIV ‘morning after pill’, despite scientists warning of the dangers of such assumptions and the serious side-effects.
A four week course of PEP drugs may prevent a person contracting HIV if they have been exposed to it, provided it is administered within 72 hours.
Yet now these new drugs are being trialled as a method of prevention before exposure.
The method is called PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophlaxis) and involves taking a daily tablet for as long as necessary.
Gabriel Schembri, 34, principal investigator for the centre, explained: “These are preventative methods. The drugs we use in PEP and PrEP are the same drugs used to manage HIV, just used in a different way.
“Nothing cures HIV, but it’s like diabetes and high blood pressure; you can manage it. People can have a normal life expectancy because it can be managed so well now.”
The scheme goes well beyond Manchester, with participants also being recruited for the trial in Brighton, London, York, Sheffield and Birmingham. The study’s formal name is PROUD: PRe-exposure Option for reducing HIV in the UK.
He adds that condoms remain the most effective way for gay men to protect themselves, and PrEP should not be thought of as a substitute.
The PROUD study is hoping to recruit 500 volunteers. A tenth are required in Manchester and they are currently halfway to meeting their target.
Volunteers must be HIV negative and have had unprotected anal sex in the last 90 days.
They will be supported throughout the trial by a combination of various services, including counselling and safer sex advice, behavioural support, regular HIV tests and free condoms.
The HIV Prevention Team at the Medical Research Council’s Clinical Trials Unit co-ordinates the study nationally.
Mitzy Gafos, a social scientist with the HIV Prevention Team at the Medical Research Council’s Clinical Trials Unit which co-ordinates the study nationally, said: “PrEP is not a cure for HIV. PrEP is a new risk reduction strategy.
“HIV negative individuals receive a comprehensive risk reduction package (including behavioural support, regular HIV tests and free condoms) combined with daily antiretroviral (ARV) drug treatment, to prevent the virus becoming an established infection if they are exposed to HIV.”
A video was recently made about PEP by the Lesbian and Gay Foundation, as part of their Sexual Health Quickies. It is available to watch on their YouTube channel.
In the video Peter Boyle, a Sexual Health Co-ordinator, said: “PEP should never be thought of as a morning after pill for HIV, there can be side-effects which in some cases can be quite severe.”
The side effects, which include vomiting and diarrhoea, can be so debilitating that a person must be considered at a high level of risk for HIV contraction before PEP will be given to them.
The Quickies are all subtitled and should be easier for people with low literacy or learning difficulties to access. They go live on the last Friday of each month.
“We know that gay and bisexual men access sexual health information primarily on the internet,” said Stacey Adams, Sexual Health Programme Manager at the LGF.
“The main aim of the videos is to provide another way for gay and bisexual men to get sexual health information other than reading information or attending a health service.”
Potential volunteers for the PrEP study should contact Dr Gabriel Schembri on 0161 701 1504 or at [email protected]
Picture courtesy of Flegmus, with thanks.