Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis or PrEP

Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) involves putting HIV negative people on antiretroviral drugs (ARV) with the aim of protecting them from HIV infection. This blog looks at some of the pros and cons of PrEP.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Opportunity and Opportunism in the HIV Industry

There's an article in the July edition of the Journal of the International AIDS Society entitled "Planning for pre-exposure prophylaxis to prevent HIV transmission: challenges and opportunities". The list of 13 authors and their respective institutions reads like a page from a Who's Who of the HIV/AIDS industry. The tone of the article suggests that there is more interest in the opportunities presented by pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP); the challenges are made seem quite irrelevant, or at least surmountable. The paper emanated from a meeting sponsored by the Gates Foundation.

In addition to the apparent irrationality of trying to eradicate HIV by putting most sexually active HIV negative people on antiretroviral drugs (ARV), PrEP would seem to be in tension with another, slightly less irrational strategy: 'treatment as prevention'. Treatment as prevention involves treating everyone found to be HIV positive with ARVs, regardless of their disease stage. According to this theory, people who are on ARVs are not very infectious, so they are unlikely enough to transmit HIV for the epidemic to eventually be eradicated.

But a successful treatment as prevention program would obviate the need for PrEP. And a successful PrEP program would make treatment as prevention a serious case of overkill. Perhaps the industry, in its great wisdom, is not advocating for both programs to be implemented in the one place. But both strategies seem to be about maximizing drug use without having much likelihood of effecting substantial reductions in HIV transmission.

PrEP would target HIV negative people and treatment as prevention would target HIV positive people, so the latter would seem to be the more tractable aim. Even in the highest prevalence countries, there are more HIV negative people than HIV positive. But then you have to make the decision, assuming your resources are limited, as to whether you distribute drugs among those who are already sick, to allow them to live longer and to enjoy good health; or distribute drugs among those who are not sick, but who may become infected.

PrEP and treatment as prevention are not complementary strategies, they are clearly in tension. But the tension is not irresolvable. Healthy people don't need drugs. There are other prevention strategies available that PrEP can only overlap with, such as condoms and possibly others. There is also prevention of non-sexual HIV transmission, which has been totally ignored in developing countries so far. But the aim to treat everyone infected, no matter how desirable, will not guarantee the protection of people as yet uninfected.

The article concludes "It is an ethical imperative that we act now to prepare the path to timely implementation [of PrEP]". The only ethical imperative is that we find appropriate treatments and prevention interventions. The imperative to exploit the HIV pandemic to make huge profits is not ethical, whatever else it may be.


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