Gay men’s awareness of a drug which could prevent HIV infection when someone has been exposed to the virus has doubled in the UK following a targeted national education campaign. The drug, called Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP), has an 80% chance of preventing HIV infection if taken within 72 hours of exposure, for 28 days.

According to new data from the National Gay Men’s Sex Survey undertaken by Sigma Research, gay men in the UK in 2005 were twice as likely to be aware of PEP than they were in 2003, an increase from 22% to 39% following an awareness campaign coordinated by Terrence Higgins Trust.

Awareness of PEP significantly increased in every demographic subgroup and in every area of the country, although the rise was greatest in London and Brighton, the cities most targeted by the education campaign.

The campaign also had a significant impact on the numbers of gay men seeking PEP, and the numbers of men being prescribed the drugs. In the UK, the proportion of gay men who had ever sought PEP increased significantly from 1.0% in 2003 to 1.4% in 2005. The proportion who had ever actually taken PEP rose from 0.6% in 2003 to 1.2% in 2005.

Seeking PEP and taking PEP rose in all demographic groups and in all areas and remained highest in London and Brighton, among men with higher numbers of sexual partners and those with higher incomes.

Will Nutland, Head of Health Promotion at Terrence Higgins Trust said, “The new data demonstrates that targeted health promotion campaigns, with a relatively small budget, can be highly effective at increasing awareness and increasing access to potentially life-saving treatment.”

Ford Hickson of Sigma Research, who conducted the research, said: “The proportion of those men who sought the treatment who went on to take it also rose significantly from 59% in 2003 to 74% in 2005, suggesting an on-going improvement in access to this service which is clearly necessary.”

However, taking PEP is still very rare even among the group most at risk from HIV in the UK. Although 7.5% of men not tested HIV positive said they thought they had been involved in sexual HIV exposure in the last year, only 1.2% of men had ever taken PEP. Even among the group at greatest risk of HIV infection, taking PEP is still a relatively rare event.

Mr Nutland went on to say, “Terrence Higgins Trust will continue to raise awareness of PEP amongst key at-risk groups in the UK and to work with sexual health clinics to improve access to PEP in these groups.”