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Sex is fun, and always should be. But fun comes with its own set of risks, so we at PRUDE want the sex you have to be as safe as possible. PrEP, a drug that prevents the spread of HIV, is one way to make sure that you can do that.
HIV treatment has come a long way since the 1980s, which saw the frightening and sombre days of the AIDS pandemic was at its peak, as was captured so vividly in Channel 4’s hit drama It’s a Sin. Testing positive no longer comes with a death sentence, and can be managed for a long period of time without many adverse effects.
Great strides have also been made recently in preventing transmission. PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is a drug that, when taken before and after sex, has been shown to be 99% effective at stopping someone catching HIV from a sexual partner.
Since 2020, PrEP has been available widely and for free on the NHS in the UK. PRUDE spoke to Asad Zafar from information website Prepster about why it’s so important and to dispel myths about the drug – so we’ve straightened out a few facts.
It’s really easy to get
As long as you are over the age of 16, all you have to do is call your local sexual health clinic. “You’ll undergo a HIV test, because you have to be HIV negative to be on PrEP, and a kidney function test,” he says. “This is to check you don’t have any pre-existing kidney issues, because PrEP can put a bit of a strain on kidneys for people who have underlying issues that they are unaware of. But the chance of complications is very minimal.”
These tests are important to make sure it’s the right drug for you. Asad says: “They are why we always say ‘don’t use your friend’s PrEP’ and take the tests so it won’t cause any damage.”
It’s not just for gay men
“We always mention PrEP to everyone, because HIV doesn’t discriminate,” says Asad. “PrEP is available for everyone on the NHS, but many [cisgender, heterosexual] communities don’t know about it, and don’t know they can take it.”
Last month, new figures showed that in 2020 there were more HIV diagnoses among heterosexual people than gay and bisexual men, with 1,010 compared to 890. The availability of PrEP, and campaigns among queer groups to educate people about it, have helped HIV circulation in England to decrease by 41% for gay and bisexual men, falling by 610 infections between 2019 and 2020.
“I speak to women daily, and they say: ‘Oh, my gay friends have told me about PrEP,’ but a lot of them don’t know that it is available to them for free, and that it can benefit them,” adds Asad. “And the thing is with PrEP, it doesn’t interfere with the contraceptive pill and it doesn’t interfere with hormones, so trans people can also safely take it.”
You can buy it online safely too
Going to the sexual health clinic may not be practical, or possible for a number of people. Asad says: “For some people, due to religious or cultural issues, they don’t want to be seen walking to a sexual health clinic – or it can give people a lot of anxiety. There’s a lot of stigma around sex, so for some people it is an option to buy online.”
Asad recommends visiting the Prepster website for resources on how to purchase the drug safely.
It doesn’t prevent other sexually transmitted diseases
PrEP only protects against HIV transmission, and not other STDs such as gonorrhoea and chlamydia.“This is important to remember,” says Asad.
There may be side effects
In very rare situations, some people who take PrEP may experience side effects. These can include nausea, stomach pain and tiredness. These usually pass after a few weeks, and cease if the person stops taking PrEP – but speak to your doctor immediately if you are feeling unwell.
For more information, see: aidsmap.com
If you think you have been exposed, there’s also PEP
PrEP is a preventative drug, which requires some organisation to make sure that it is taken correctly and is effective, but if you haven’t been taking it and think you have been exposed to HIV, don’t panic.
PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis), is also available and can significantly reduce the chances of contracting HIV. “If you feel like you may have been put at risk, you can go to any A&E within 72 hours of exposure, and they will do the relevant tests to work out if you’re suitable for PEP,” says Asad. “It’s sort of like the morning after pill, you take it and it stops the virus from taking hold. There have been a lot of tests and it’s around 80 to 90 per cent effective.”
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