There’s a Drug That Prevents HIV. Let’s Use It

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An FDA-approved drug can prevent HIV infections, but critics have worried that having such a fallback pill can promote unsafe sex and cause HIV infections to rise. A new study proves them wrong

Since 2012, there has been a drug that can protect you from getting infected with HIV. It’s a combination of drugs that originally were developed to treat the infection, but studies found that giving it to people who are uninfected but at high risk of getting exposed to HIV could lower their risk of getting HIV by as much as 90%. But because the drug was tested in lab-based research settings, some questioned whether the therapy, called pre-exposure prophylaxis, of PrEP, would work in real world clinics and community health centers.

Now they have their answer and it’s an encouraging yes. Reporting inJAMA Internal Medicine, researchers show that providing PrEP to men who have sex with men, who are at highest risk of developing new HIV infections, dropped their rates of HIV dramatically. In the study, conducted at two clinics treating sexually transmitted diseases and a community health center in three different cities, 437 men and transgender women took PrEP, which consists of emtricitabine and tenofovir (together called Truvada), for nearly a year. Only two became HIV positive, but both showed extremely low blood levels of the drug, suggesting that they took only about half of their required doses.

Even more encouraging, the study found that those engaging in the riskiest behaviors for acquiring HIV — having sex without a condom and having multiple sex partners, were the most likely to have protective levels of the drugs in their blood at the end of the study. Rates of sexually transmitted infections, while high, did not increase during the study period while the participants were taking PrEP. In other words, the drug did not make users more promiscuous or more reckless about their risk.

“These results are promising, and really highlight the potential role of PrEP as a prevention tool for men who have sex with men,” says Dr. Albert Liu, clinical research director of Bridge HIV in the San Francisco Department of Public Health and the study’s lead author.