Australians at high risk of contracting HIV, especially men having unprotected sex with men, should be given access to a contraceptive-like pill that protects them from getting the virus, the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations says.
This week for the first time, the World Health Organisation strongly recommended that men who have sex with men consider taking antiretroviral medicine as an additional method of preventing HIV, alongside the use of condoms.
In its new guidelines on HIV prevention, released ahead of the 20th International AIDS Conference starting in Melbourne this weekend, the WHO said modelling estimated that the drugs would reduce HIV infections among men who have sex with men by 20 per cent to 25 per cent in a decade, averting up to 1 million new diagnoses.
”Rates of HIV infection among men who have sex with men remain high almost everywhere and new prevention options are urgently needed,” the WHO statement said.
The executive director of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations, Rob Lake, said use of the drugs for prevention– a measure known as pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP – could be a useful tool in Australia.
”We’re very optimistic about it,” he said.
While three trials of antiretroviral drugs have begun this year in about 400 people at risk of HIV infection in Victoria, NSW and Queensland, Mr Lake said the method could be useful for thousands of Australians who know they are at some risk, such as people in sexual relationships with HIV-positive people. About 26,800 people are living with HIV in Australia.
”About half of all people with HIV are in relationships at any one time,” Mr Lake said.
He said studies suggested routine use of the drugs offered close to 100 per cent protection against HIV. The drugs could also be taken on a temporary basis by people who know they are going to briefly put themselves at risk through unprotected sex, for example. He said this strategy had been dubbed ”disco dosing”.
”If you’re going to need it over the weekend, you can start taking it on a Wednesday or Thursday,” he said.
New data released by the University of NSW’s Kirby Institute this week, shows HIV diagnoses reached a 20-year high in Australia last year. There were 1235 new diagnoses in 2013– 70 per cent more than in 1999, when diagnoses were at their lowest.
The Annual Report of Trends in Behaviour, produced by the UNSW’s Centre for Social Research in Health, also reported that 35 per cent of men with casual partners in the six months prior to the survey reported having unprotected sex. The rates of unprotected sex was closer to 60 per cent among HIV-positive men with casual partners.
At the moment, no drugs are licensed in Australia for the prevention of HIV, and if they were to be, a drug manufacturer would have to apply to the federal government’s Therapeutic Goods Administration for approval.
A government spokeswoman said that if the current trials in HIV-negative people were successful, the data may support a future application to the TGA