Savvy consumers and activists have found a way to make Truvada, an important tool in the fight against HIV/AIDS, available to citizens in the UK in spite of the National Health Service’s (NHS) refusal to offer the drug.
Also known as PrEP, an acronym for pre-exposure prophylaxis, Truvada is a pill that individuals at very high risk of exposure to HIV can take daily to lower their chances of infection significantly. According to the CDC, “PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 90 percent when used consistently.”
The medication is approved for use in the UK, but the service points to financial concerns as a reason for not making it available on the NHS, the country’s publicly funded healthcare system. Will Nutland of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine realized the potential positive impact this drug can have on at-risk populations in the UK, especially gay men, so in order to bypass the government’s inaction, he set up PrEPster to help facilitate purchasing the drug online.
The site is like a new age Dallas Buyer’s Club. It directs interested parties to a generic form of the pill out of India and Swaziland, partnering with clinics to ensure that the drugs being sold are real and safe. These pills are sold at a drastic discount compared to how much the brand name Truvada costs, a difference of £360 ($439) each month. This is all completely legal as long as the drugs are bought for a personal supply for up to three months at a time.
Thanks in no small part to efforts like PrEPster, sexual health clinics in London are reporting drastic falls in the number of new HIV infections. In fact, figures from 2016 show a drop of around 40 percent compared to 2015. “Something extraordinary has happened in the last 12 months because of a bunch of DIY activists working off our kitchen tables,” said Nutland.
Some critics may attribute the decline in infections to increased safe sex practices among high-risk communities. However, according to Sheena McCormack of the 56 Dean Street clinic in London, this is unlikely since the rates of other sexually transmitted infections have remained stagnant — if an increased use of prophylactics, such as condoms, was a contributing factor in the decline of HIV infections, instances of other infections would become less prevalent as well.
In addition to PrEPster, other sites are working to help people get their hands on this life-changing drug, with one of those, I Want PrEP Now, helping an estimated 2,000 people obtain PrEP. Thousands will soon have access to it via Public Health England, which is planning to make PrEP available as part of a 10,000-person trial so it can determine how best to bring this drug to British citizens, but the agency needs to begin looking further ahead, according to Nutland.
“The NHS needs to pull its finger out and make sure there’s a contingency plan for what to do when its 10,000 places fill up,” he asserted. “The cat is out of the bag that PrEP really works.”