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.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Give Them Pills: Wealth, Health and Education Will Magically Follow

A major worry about PrEP is not that it won't work, nor even that it may result in increases in 'unsafe' sexual behavior, but that it simply ignores the conditions in which HIV is transmitted. It's is a process of giving people drugs but leaving them in the very circumstances in which they are thought to be at risk from infection with HIV and various other diseases.

If people engage in high levels of unsafe sex, PrEP may result in increases in such behavior; or it may reduce such behavior, though claims that it does are probably wishful thinking. But PrEP is not designed to influence behavior, it's designed to protect people from HIV transmission, even if they still engage in risky behavior. If it was feasible to influence people's sexual behavior, PrEP would not be necessary.

So it may reduce the 'risk' of a HIV negative person becoming infected. But it doesn't aim to reduce their risky behavior. The same applies to treating HIV positive people with antiretroviral drugs regardless of the clinical stage they have reached, known as 'treatment as (or 'is') prevention', 'test and treat', etc; this also doesn't reduce their risky behavior, nor that of their partners.

Surely, if people face risks as a result of their sexual behavior, it is their sexual behavior that needs to be influenced, not just their risk of infection with one or two diseases? And if their risks are not just sexual, if they also face risks from unsafe healthcare or unsafe cosmetic practices, surely those also need to be addressed?

Because, even if massive increases in the numbers of people on antiretroviral drugs result, either because of PrEP, treatment as prevention or any other scheme or combination of schemes the pharmaceutical industry dreams up, such risks are not acceptable. They would also be far more cheaply and efficiently addressed in their own right, rather than by using a scatter gun approach using drugs alone. Nature and other commentators appear to be concentrating on commercial risks, while ostensibly worrying about potential failure of PrEP to reduce HIV transmission.

Attempts to influence sexual behavior have been very unsuccessful, but what about the need to influence (antiretroviral) drug taking behaviors and various other measures to reduce risk, for example, by using PrEP or treatment as prevention strategies? If people are not highly compliant, the drugs won't work and may result in increased rates of resistance, which can be transmitted from person to person, as well as developing in individuals on ARVs.

This problem is particularly acute in resource poor settings, where HIV transmission rates may be highest. UNAIDS claim that 80-90% of HIV in African countries is transmitted through heterosexual sex. But they have never said what it is about heterosexual sex in a few African countries that could result in massive rates of transmission.

How could putting millions of people on drugs be a substitute for explaining why Africans face such huge risks when there is no evidence that people with HIV engage in, or have ever engaged in, types of sexual behavior that would greatly facilitate HIV transmission?

Where would PrEP come in? By doling out drugs to every HIV negative sexually active person? And treatment as prevention? By doling out drugs to every HIV positive sexually active person? African countries have not even come close to getting all HIV positive people who have reached a specific clinical stage of HIV progression on antiretroviral drugs, without which they will die. What magic is going to put half or more of the populations of some countries on drugs?

Also, enthusaists claim that PrEP, treatment as prevention and other strategies are not just about drugs, that people receive a whole range of benefits, such as regular testing, counselling and various other things. But this is not true. For most high prevalence countries, being on antiretroviral treatment doesn't even guarantee the supply of drugs. Several countries have run out of drugs, some on more than one occasion. But most people on drugs get little more than drugs.

Mitchell Warren, director of AVAC, a pharmaceutical front organization that aims to increase the use of HIV drugs, at all costs it seems, is quoted, as usual. He says "We think of PrEP as a pill, but we all recognize that PrEP is about a much broader programme". Recognizing this is not the same as providing a 'much broader program'. So far, those who receive the drugs are lucky to do so and those who can also feed themselves and get hold of other treatment needs are luckier still.

As for the necessity to test people at two to three month intervals, which country has succeeded in testing all sexually active people once, let alone once every two or three months, or even once a year? Countries with high HIV prevalence tend not to have the health service capacity to do any of the things AVAC and other pharmaceutical flag wavers glibly take for granted.

Another article asks "Will healthy uninfected people consistently take an expensive and powerful drug that can cause a range of side effects?" But that question seems to be of secondary importance compared to questions about ignoring the direct risks people face as a result of their sexual behavior and the state of health care and other services in their country. The question also ignores the problem of identifying exactly who could benefit from these strategies in high prevalence countries and how those most in need would be identified.

Apparently proponents of PrEP have said it would be "unethical" not to explore its potential. Perhaps so. But a prior concern would be establishing exactly what risks people in high prevalence countries face, rather than assuming that the risks are all sexual. Otherwise strategies like PrEP and treatment as prevention will only serve the interests of the pharmaceutical industry. That's probably all the industry wants, but recipients of these drugs might require a little more.


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