The director of HIV Ireland has called for anti-HIV drug PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) to be made available immediately to tackle Ireland’s HIV epidemic.
HIV Ireland and the Gay Health Network (GHN) are calling for PrEP to be introduced under the HSE general medical services scheme. Drugs supplied under the scheme are available through prescription from a doctor, for people with medical cards, and can be received from any pharmacy that has an agreement with the HSE, which covers the costs.
Currently, PrEP is available to buy only on prescription for about €400 a month.
HIV diagnoses nationally have increased by 35 per cent since 2011. A total of 512 people were newly diagnosed as living with HIV in 2016, compared with 485 in 2015.
PrEP is a once-daily medication that, in combination with safer sex practices, has been proven to reduce significantly the risk of sexually acquired HIV-1 infection among un-infected adults at high risk.
Executive director of HIV Ireland Niall Mulligan said the drug needed to be made available “as soon as possible” as Ireland was experiencing a “HIV epidemic”.
Mr Mulligan said the rise could be attributed to an increase in the number of foreign nationals who have already been diagnosed with HIV and have moved here.
He also said the rise in popularity of dating apps for men who have sex with men such as Grindr had “contributed somewhat” to the rise but was not the main reason.
“There is still a major stigma in relation to HIV and a worry or a fear around getting tested. People are worried they will be diagnosed with HIV so they don’t get tested.
“When someone is diagnosed and treated for HIV they are less likely to infect other people; it’s people who don’t know they are living with HIV who are the risk factor,” he said.
Mr Mulligan said PrEP alone was not enough and people who were on it should continue to get tested and use protection when having sex.
Mr Mulligan said there were potentially some side affects to the drug but they were minuscule and that people taking PrEP should continue to have check-ups.
“Taking PrEP does not remove personal responsibility as some have argued. It empowers people who want to look after the sexual health of themselves and others. PrEP alone is not the panacea; it is important to still use condoms, get tested and take responsibility for your sexual health,” he said.
Mr Mulligan said another issue with PrEP was that people in abusive relationships taking the drug were being forced to have unprotected sex, as well as sex workers.
HIV Ireland and the GHN launched a paper on Thursday to provide evidence-based guidance on PrEP use in Ireland, using views of key populations affected by HIV, such as men who have sex with men (MSM).
The paper looked into guidelines by the World Health Organisation, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, along with the NHS in the UK.
Author of the paper Dr Ann Nolan said of particular concern was the continued high level of new diagnoses among MSM.
“To reverse this alarming upward trend, PrEP must be introduced as a key HIV-prevention intervention. The message to the HSE arising from this study is clear: PrEP promises to be one of the most important innovations in the global response to HIV, and Ireland’s escalating epidemic suggests that we cannot afford to be left behind,” said Dr Nolan.
“It is evident from this Irish-centred study that a range of healthcare providers identify a need for Ireland to join the increasing number of countries making PrEP available to people at risk of HIV as part of a comprehensive package of prevention measures,” she said.