Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)—most often a combination of tenofovir and emtricitabine taken orally as a daily tablet—is extremely effective at preventing HIV infection when taken regularly.
The choice of PrEP is recommended for people who are HIV-negative but at high risk of becoming infected. The people who can benefit most from PrEP—including gay men and other men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers, serodiscordant couples before the partner living with HIV becomes virally suppressed and young women and girls in the areas of sub-Saharan Africa most affected by HIV—are located where there are high rates of untreated HIV and inconsistent condom use.
People starting on PrEP must be HIV-negative and undergo repeat HIV testing every three months. The side-effects of taking PrEP are usually mild and short-lived. The risk of developing resistance to PrEP medicines is extremely low, as long as the person is confirmed to be HIV-negative when starting PrEP.
In the past two years, PrEP roll-out has moved quickly. It is estimated that in October 2016 around 100 000 people were using PrEP in more than 30 countries, with the majority of users in the United States of America. The UNAIDS target is for there to be 3 million people on PrEP worldwide by 2020.
There are now active national PrEP programmes in Australia, France, Kenya, Norway, South Africa and the United States. Botswana is pursuing regulatory approval and creating an implementation plan, while Thailand and Zimbabwe are among other countries producing guidelines for PrEP roll-out. In addition, more than 20 projects around the world are exploring the use of PrEP.
However, even where there is an existing national programme, PrEP uptake is unequal and the people who would benefit most do not always gain access. Many activists in the AIDS response continue to criticize this inequality. “PrEP is powerful, it has to reach the disempowered,” said Nöel Gordon of the Human Rights Campaign.
PrEP adds to the package of proven prevention options already available. PrEP should be used in conjunction with other prevention methods, such as male and female condoms, voluntary medical male circumcision and antiretroviral therapy for all people living with HIV. When antiretroviral therapy is effective in a person living with HIV, the virus becomes undetectable in the person’s blood and the risk of transmitting the virus to a partner approaches zero. No single HIV prevention method is 100% protective and PrEP does not prevent other sexually transmitted infections or prevent unintended pregnancy. Condoms remain the most widely available and affordable HIV prevention tool and as such should always be promoted along with PrEP.
The benefits of choosing PrEP can be psychological as well as physical and the use of PrEP may counter the anxiety and isolation felt by some people who feel they lack the ability to control their risk of exposure to HIV. PrEP can give people more autonomy about their sexual decision-making, which may also include risk reduction. PrEP may promote improved communication and intimacy with a partner, reduced fear of intimate partner violence, raised self-esteem and greater engagement with all aspects of sexual health.
Offering PrEP can encourage more people at the highest risk of HIV to attend HIV clinics, undergo HIV testing and access either PrEP or treatment depending on the test result. Either way, the outcome is good for the individual and good for HIV prevention.
PrEP gives us one more tool that we can use to better tailor the prevention package to each person’s individual needs, which can change over time. PrEP is not for everyone and is not for ever. Routine PrEP follow-up involves regular review of broader sexual health, including the diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted infections and discussion of appropriate combination HIV prevention strategies and contraception, as appropriate.