Many still unaware anti-HIV drug now available in Ireland, survey
High cost of anti-HIV drug makes it inaccessible for most people, warns campaigner
Will St Leger: ‘we’ve had great movements towards mental health and physical health – it’s time we talked about sexual health’
A significant percentage of Ireland’s gay community still do not realise that the Anti-HIV drug Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) is available for purchase in the State with large numbers continuing to buy the drug online, research has shown.
While the vast majority of the Irish gay community know about the PrEP drug, which has been proven to reduce the risk of HIV infection by up to 90 per cent, one-third of those questioned in a recent survey admitted they did not know or were unsure whether the drug was available in Ireland.
The research, which was conducted by Gay Community News on behalf of Teva Pharmaceuticals Ireland, found that more than one-third of 24-30 year olds – a key target group for HIV reduction strategies – did not know PrEP was available in Ireland. Only 10 per cent of all respondents said they were currently using the drug. The survey was carried out among 622 respondents, 97 per cent of whom were male.
It also found that 57 per cent of respondents who used the drug were obtaining it from unregulated sources such as online websites. Others acquired the drug in pharmacies, STI clinics or a hospitals.
A generic version of the PrEP became available in Irish pharmacies in December and costs about €80-€100 for a monthly prescription. The cost of PrEP is not covered by the HSE but can be obtained privately with a doctor’s prescription. If the medicine is taken before sex, it protects people from catching HIV and can help drastically reduce the number of people becoming infected.
Will St Leger, artist and sexual health advocate, says that the high monthly cost of the drug makes it financially inaccessible to most people and is calling for assessment by the HSE for PrEP to be included in the drugs payment scheme. St Leger has also warned that stigma around sexual transmitted infections (STIs) continues to stop many people from undergoing regular sexual health tests which are necessary for those taking PrEP.
“Ireland is light years behind when it comes to sexual health in general,” said St Leger, referring to a survey carried out by HIV Ireland in 2017 which found nearly a quarter of respondents incorrectly believed HIV could be transmitted through kissing. “There’s a shocking amount of ignorance around HIV and a lack of positive attitudes towards sexual health. In order to meet the challenge of reducing STIs and reversing the levels of HIV we need to motivate people to test regularly for STIs.
The Gay Community news research found that one in five of those surveyed rarely do STI tests while only 18 per cent were regularly tested. People taking the PrEP must be tested every three months to ensure they are HIV negative.
Cities and countries where PrEP is widely used have seen a significant fall in the incidences of new cases of HIV in contrast to Ireland where the number of people diagnosed with HIV rose by five per cent in 2016.
St Leger argues that the Government, State agencies, NGOs and the general community are far too complacent when it comes to sexual health. “Testing for STIs not only gives confidence but helps people take control of their own sexual health. It also means people who have gone undiagnosed can be treated quickly.
“In the last few years we’ve had great movements towards mental health and physical health. It’s time we talked about sexual health. When it comes to your sexual health, ignorance is definitely not bliss.”