As part of World Contraception Day, the Higher Education and Training HIV/AIDS Programme (HEAIDS) will be providing pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to 11 clinics across 7 different South African universities.
PrEP is a globally accepted preventive treatment in which people with a high risk of HIV infection, take anti-HIV medicine daily to lower chances of infection.
The initiative, which rolls-out today, will be in partnership with the Department of Health and will be aimed at instilling not only a culture of contraception, but also a culture of awareness surrounding available treatment and precautionary strategies.
“Pre-exposure prophylaxis is now a universally accepted prevention methodology,” says Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia, Director of HEAIDS. “Multiple clinical studies have shown up to 90% reduction in the infection rate of high risk populations such as sex workers and men who have sex with men (MSM).”
Young people aged 15 to 24, particularly young women, are among the populations most vulnerable to the epidemic,” continues Dr Ahluwalia. “In these age groups rates of transactional sex are very high, and condom uptake is low, which is why they are good candidates for the roll out,” he continues.
The Centres for Disease Control (CDC) fully endorses PrEP, stating that “Daily PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 90%. Among people who inject drugs, it reduces the risk by more than 70%.”
“PrEP has enormous potential to spare thousands of young South Africans from the HIV epidemic, but only if it is used properly, consistently and responsibly. That is why we are working closely with universities, the Department of Health and the clinics to ensure students are properly informed on how PrEP works, and what is required for it to remain effective,” explains Dr Ahluwalia.
“It is vital that students make use of a combination of prevention methodologies – for example combining condom use with PrEP. PrEP is not 100% effective and is not a silver bullet. Like any other anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment it must be taken consistently in order to be effective, and it has side effects,” he continues.
HEAIDS will be using the ARV Truvada in its PrEP programme. Clinical studies have shown that, as with other ARVs, Truvada can cause “short-term side-effects including nausea, tiredness, gastrointestinal symptoms and headache. These are typically experienced by up to one-in-ten people during the first few weeks on the drug only.”
Another clinical study of Truvada found that, in a population of HIV-negative gay men, those who took their medication consistently were more than twice as likely to remain HIV-negative as those who skipped pills or stopped taking them entirely.
The Department of Health has previously deployed PrEP only in very high-risk populations such as sex workers and MSM.
PrEP will be available to students at Nelson Mandela University, Rhodes University, University of Limpopo, University of the Free State, University of Venda, University of Zululand, and Vaal University of Technology from this week onwards.
“PrEP is a powerful new weapon in our arsenal against the epidemic, but it is not a standalone solution. We must work together to ensure that our young people take all possible preventative measures to ensure they remain HIV negative. They are the future of our country and we owe it to them to give them the tools they need to live long, healthy and productive lives,” concludes Dr Ahluwalia.