SAHRO – 22/07/08

Once-a-Day Pill HIV Prevention

DESMOND Tutu’s HIV Foundation is pioneering new HIV prevention studies that could see HIV AIDS a chronic illness rather than a disease.

The PrEP program hopes to test a new once a day pill that could prevent healthy men from contracting HIV/AIDS. It follows studies with West African women, but it is the first time the drug will be tried with MSM (Men who have Sex with Men).
MSM are statistically the most at risk category of society for HIV.

“We use the term MSM largely to get away from identity,” says the program’s lead researcher, Earl Burrell.

“The majority of individuals like the word gay, but we don’t want to exclude people who wouldn’t identify themselves as gay,” he says.

With fifteen countries participating in the study, the race is on to see if the ‘one stop pill’ can help men take control of their sex lives like the contraceptive pill has done for women by preventing them from contracting HIV.

“It’s not a case of pop the pill now – it’s take it in the morning and then you don’t have to think about it” say Burrell’s associates.

“We strongly feel that it’s time to address the multiple vulnerable populations in Cape Town.”

Drug addicts, prostitutes and MSM were identified as the most vulnerable social groups to HIV “yet they have received only 11% of prevention studies”, the Desmond Tutu Foundation’s research shows.

Cape Town is the only African country to be part of the study, which includes a total number of 3000 participants from North and South America and Thailand.

“Normally it’s difficult to work with governments on this issue, but Cape Town is a cosmopolitan place,” researchers say.

“I think this is a pretty necessary and amazing technology and we’re proud that we got it here,” says Mr. Burrell.

Eligible participants must be over 18 and deemed to be healthy and sexually active MSM, but must also be deemed of high risk of contracting the virus.

The $2million project aims to de-stigmatize ‘at risk’ groups, after a survey of black and coloured Capetonian township residents revealed shocking figures.

34% tested HIV positive, yet only 2.8% were aware that they had contracted the virus. Only half always used protection, but only half of these used it correctly.

“We need to provide disadvantaged communities with the means for safer sex,” enthuses Mr. Burrell.

Critics worry that the easy one-pill prevention will lure men into a false sense of security, making them more exposed to the virus.

But Mr. Burrell says tests in Brazil suggest the study could cause men to alter their behaviour as the daily reminder combined with monthly tests and counselling cause participants to think more closely about their sexual activity.

“Taking a pill everyday served as a timely reminder of the imminent HIV risk and then the number of participants using a condom shot up from 52% to 94%”.

The Archbishop supports the program

“Prevention and treatment go hand-in-hand. And for prevention of HIV there must be more innovative, bold and honest messages, free of prejudicial restrictions and based upon sound evidence” says the archbishop.

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