Image by NIAID/Victor Tangermann

California residents can now obtain two HIV prevention drugs without a prescription — a first-in-the-nation development that could dramatically improve access to the medications.

One of the drugs, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), is taken similarly to a birth control pill. Anyone with an elevated risk of contracting HIVfor example, a person who regularly engages in condomless sex with partners of unknown HIV status — can take the medication once daily and see their risk substantially reduced — the same way taking the birth control pill drastically reduces a person's risk of pregnancy.

Continuing the analogy, the other drug, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), is more like emergency contraception. If a person is exposed to HIV, they can lower their risk of contraction by taking PEP within 72 hours — the same way a person might take emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy following unprotected sex.

On Monday, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 159, a law removing the need for a prescription to obtain PrEP or PEP at a pharmacy. The bill also prohibits insurance companies from requiring prior authorization for the medications.

"Recent breakthroughs in the prevention and treatment of HIV can literally save lives," Newsom said in a statement. "All Californians deserve access to PrEP and PEP, two treatments that have transformed our fight against HIV and AIDS. I applaud the Legislature for taking action to expand access to these treatments and getting us close to ending HIV and AIDS for good."

The California Health Benefit Review Program, an independent organization tasked with reviewing the potential impact of California's health insurance-related legislation, predicts that PrEP usage in the state will increase by 2 percent while the total number of new HIV cases will decrease by 25 the first year SB 159 is in effect.

Even more encouraging: the organization believes that both figures will show even greater improvement once more pharmacists undergo the training necessary to dispense both PrEP and PEP.