NHS has failed gay men by failing to back HIV-preventing PrEP drugs, activists say
HIV activists from across the spectrum have spoken out to condemn NHS England for a decision to not commission HIV-preventing PrEP drugs.
Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) drug Truvada can reduce people’s chances of being infected with HIV by up to 99 percent, if taken daily.
The drug has been endorsed by the World Health Organisation and is already routinely available to at-risk gay men in a number of countries, including the United States, Canada, France and Israel.
In the UK, NHS England had promised to re-evaluate making the drugs available – after a pilot scheme showed the drugs were incredibly effective at reducing HIV transmission among men who have sex with men (MSM).
But in a statement today, NHS England has again declined to commission PrEP – claiming it has no legal authority to do so, while suggesting a further small-scale trial at “early implementer” cites instead of a roll-out.
The claim to not have authority comes despite the Prime Minister himself telling NHS England to make a quick decision on the issue.
The move has been condemned as cynical and harmful by HIV activists and LGBT campaigners, who have warned that failing to tackle the spread of HIV will ultimately cost more and cause harm.
Rob Cookson of the LGBT Foundation said: “Today is a huge missed opportunity for HIV prevention. Seventeen people are being diagnosed with HIV every day.
“PrEP has a really important part to play in reducing HIV rates; if taken correctly is almost 100% effective in preventing HIV. PrEP is now available in America, Canada, France and Kenya. Why the delay here in England?
“2,500 men who have sex with men will be needlessly infected with HIV each year in the UK. PrEP can play an important, vital role with other forms of HIV prevention, including condoms and testing, to reduce HIV rates.
“PrEP should be made available without delay to people at higher risk of acquiring HIV. We will keep talking about PrEP, and will not rest until it is made available. This is a huge missed opportunity.”
Veteran rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said: “This decision is symptomatic of the crisis in the NHS, which is failing to address the prevention and treatment needs of many patients affected by many different diseases and infections.
“It is short-sighted and financially irrational. The cost of providing PrEP to at risk gay and bisexual men is cheaper than the cost of treating them if they become infected with HIV. It makes medical, financial and ethical sense to provide PrEP on the NHS. The government should order a rethink.”
Labour peer Lord Cashman said: “Today is a shameful day for HIV prevention. NHS England has confirmed it will not commission PrEP, a highly effective HIV drug. Shameful.”
A statement from the National AIDS Trust says: “PrEP is an HIV prevention drug, proven to be effective in stopping HIV transmission in almost every case if taken properly.
“The decision by NHS England not even to consider commissioning PrEP came after 18 months of hard work from an NHS working group (comprising clinicians and experts from across the HIV sector) which demonstrated the need, efficacy and cost-effectiveness of PrEP.”
GMFA’s Matthew Hodson said: “I’m shocked, disappointed and saddened that NHS England is ducking any responsibility to provide PrEP.
“At the recent LGBT reception, the Prime Minister made a commitment to do all that is within his power to speed access to PrEP. Adding PrEP to our HIV prevention armoury could have the power to turn the tide on new HIV infections. This would have been a great legacy for any Government. But once again, today, that opportunity has been dismissed.
“Every year thousands of gay and bisexual men in the UK are diagnosed with HIV. In many of these cases, if PrEP had been available, infection could have been avoided and the overall bill for HIV treatment and care could be reduced.”
NAT exec Deborah Gold said: “NHS England is sitting on something that could be the beginning of the end for the HIV epidemic – if only it were made available.
“The refusal to commission it for all those at significant risk is astonishing.
“Seventeen people are being diagnosed with HIV every day. We are extremely disappointed and we will now be looking at our options, including further legal action.”
Ian Green, Chief Executive of Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “Today is a shameful day for HIV prevention. This country used to lead the way in the fight against the HIV epidemic, but today, our national health service has washed its hands of one of the most stunning breakthroughs we’ve seen; a pill which, if taken correctly, is almost 100% effective in preventing HIV. A pill which is already available in America, Canada, France, Kenya and soon to be Australia.
“How did it come to this? It defies belief that, after 18 months of false hope, delays and u-turns in the battle to see PrEP made available on the NHS to people at high risk of HIV, today we are in a worse position than when we started.
“It is a mess, and the people who will feel the effects are the 2,500 men who have sex with men who will be needlessly infected with HIV each year in the UK. This figure has not changed in a decade. Who will claim responsibility for the life-long impact this will have on people’s lives?
“It’s not right that people who know themselves to be at high risk of HIV have to buy PrEP themselves from the internet at considerable personal expense. Many high risk people are living in poverty and they simply cannot afford to protect themselves against HIV. Currently, only those who can afford it are able to access this life-changing treatment, further widening the inequality gap by those most affected by HIV.
“The battle for PrEP must continue until the day that people at highest risk have access to this groundbreaking pill that will protect them from HIV.”