Scientists may have made a breakthrough in the quest to stop the transmission of HIV between gay men.
Created by American biopharmaceutical giant Gilead Sciences, a daily pill called Truvada is already used to treat people infected with the virus, but a new study across 12 NHS trusts in the UK shows it could bring transmission down by 86 per cent if used widely.
Out of a group of 545 “high risk” men who were sexually very active but regularly failed to use protection, half were given the drug straight away, while the other half were given it after a year.
The results showed that among the men who started the drug immediately only three infections arose, compared to 19 in those who were given it at a later date.
It works via a process called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), and it gave more promising results than previous trials in other countries, which often involved a less “real-life” setting – in this study, the patients were not forced to take the pills.
“These results are extremely exciting and show PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] is highly effective at preventing HIV infection in the real world,” said Sheena McCormack, professor of clinical epidemiology at the MRC Clinical Trials Unit at University College London.
Concerns that PrEP would not work so well in the real world were unfounded. These results show there is a need for PrEP, and offer hope of reversing the epidemic among men who have sex with men in this country. The findings we’ve presented today are going to be invaluable in informing discussions about making PrEP available through the NHS.
The cost of creating the drug is around £360 per person per month, and the number of men in the UK who fall into the high-risk category is estimated at 15,000. According to the most recent statistics from Public Health England, around 2,500 new infections arise among gay men every year.
The next stage for the NHS will be determining whether Truvada is cost effective as a preventative measure for those at high risk.