Bill English shows strong interest in HIV PrEP study

In what was his longest conversation during his Big Gay Out walkabout this afternoon Prime Minister Bill English appeared well-briefed and engaged on the subject of a pilot programme for a medication-based HIV prevention technique.

English spoke with researchers and backers of a study looking for 150 participants to help assess the effect of PrEP, a prevention technique whereby people without HIV but who are at significant risk of contracting it take a medication designed to stop any acquired infection in its tracks.

Although its use has finally been approved by drug safety agency Medsafe, the PrEP drug's manufacturer and the government's drug purchasing agency, Pharmac, have yet to agree on terms for publicly funding its availability.

Already aware that PrEP stands for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, English asked representatives from three of the study's backers, Body Positive, the University of Auckland and the NZ AIDS Foundation, what the PrEP study was designed to achieve and was told its purpose is to provide clear information in a New Zealand context to enable the NZAF and the Sexual Health Service to improve their understanding about the potential for PrEP in New Zealand.

To his question about how they saw PrEP's role in controlling HIV he was told it was intended for those most at risk of acquiring HIV and that by averting HIV infections in that group there would be savings in the long-term costs of treating a long-term infection for life.

English also asked what was the likelihood of people on PrEP medication taking the drug reliably enough to maintain protection. University of Auckland researcher Dr Peter Saxton told him that overseas research in places such as the UK showed that those with the greatest need for PrEP were also the most likely to adhere to the regime.

It was emphasised to the PM that PrEP is a proven cost-effective and potentially even cost-saving measure, that those most at risk are a small group, that PrEP needs to be added to condom use and other efforts such as immediate treatment of people newly diagnosed with HIV. By doing that there is a good chance of turning around the resurgent epidemic in New Zealand. Data from Australia shows that there could be a halving of new infections if PrEP was offered to people who need it most and that in New South Wales sexual health authorities are already offering PrEP to 4,000 gay men.