Gay men seeking HIV-preventing PrEP drugs are being ‘turned away’ from sexual health clinics over trial capacity
More than two dozen sexual health clinics in England are now turning away gay men who are seeking to take HIV-preventing drugs, PinkNews has found.
Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) drug Truvada, which can drastically reduce people’s chances of being infected with HIV, was made available for free on the NHS last year as part of a large-scale three-year trial.
As part of the trial, 10,000 places were made available via participating sexual health clinics across England – with most of the places reserved for men who have sex with men.
However, PinkNews has found that many of the major clinics involved in the trial have already been forced to close recruitment to gay and bisexual men, after their capacity for trial places was quickly filled due to high demand.
Clinics that fill their quota are left with no option other than to tell them to go elsewhere.
26 locations involved in the trial have closed recruitment so far, according to data made public by the IMPACT trial.
Some of the most popular sexual health clinics with the LGBT community, such as London’s Dean Street, filled their trial quota in just weeks.
Dr Alan McOwan of Dean Street told PinkNews: “We had a capped allocation that was used up very quickly… it’s very frustrating to have to turn people at high risk away.”
While there are still 85 sites at which the PrEP trial is available, these are not evenly distributed geographically.
Six of the ten clinics in the East of England have filled their quota, meaning men in the region may have to make an hours-long journey to one of the few remaining clinics.
The closure of recruitment at two clinics in the South West – Exeter’s GUM Clinic and Weston-super-Mare’s WISH clinic – also leaves men having to travel if they want access to PrEP.
HIV campaigners told PinkNews that it is not sustainable for clinics to turn away people who are looking to take HIV-preventing drugs.
Liam Beattie, PrEP policy lead at Terrence Higgins Trust, told PinkNews: “Clinics maxing out their PrEP allocation was always going to be one of the potential issues with a trial that has a cap on numbers.
“This trial was intended to ask questions about how PrEP could be rolled out in England and the situation we’re in in certain parts of the country raises some pressing questions that urgently need to be addressed Ultimately, we need to ensure that those who want to access PrEP for HIV prevention are able to do so.
“This clear demand for PrEP, underlines why PrEP must be given a long-term sustainable home on the NHS . We shouldn’t be in a situation where anyone who is eligible for PrEP and who wants to use it, is being turned away or directed to a clinic in another city.
“We must utilise all of the HIV prevention tools available to us in order to see a further drop in new diagnoses in this country.
“Terrence Higgins Trust will be continuing to work with NHS England to explore what options are available to improve the trial and ultimately bring about the introduction of PrEP on the NHS as quickly as possible.”
Deborah Gold, Chief Executive of the National AIDS Trust, told PinkNews: “It is disheartening that, after our victory in fighting for PrEP, people trying to be proactive in their sexual health are being turned away by clinics whose trial capacity is full.
“With places rapidly filling, it is clear that people are at risk of acquiring HIV before they might be able to access the trial.
“We urge the NHS England to escalate work towards routine commissioning of PrEP.”
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Dean Street, a clinic known for its engagement with the LGBT community, is providing men who cannot enter the trial with information about how to purchase generic drugs privately online.
Its response to queries says: “I’m afraid we don’t have any places available for PrEP Impact trial at the moment. There are several ways that you can still get PrEP.
“Some clinics still have places for the PrEP Impact study. [Alternatively] you can buy PrEP from an online supplier and import up to 3 month supply into the UK for personal use.”
Prior to the PrEP trial, many of the men who wanted access to the drugs used website ‘I Want PrEP Now’ to secure a supply of generic drugs online.
NHS England did not immediately respond to a request for comment.