The introduction of a free PrEP programme is a significant ‘gamechanger’ for at-risk communities but not a panacea in reducing the spread of HIV”, warns Stephen O’Hare, newly appointed executive director of HIV Ireland.
Speaking on the first day of the phased roll-out of a free, drug-based HIV prevention programme, Mr O’Hare welcomed the initiative by Health Minister Simon Harris as evidence that the Government had “honoured its commitment to enhancing preventive measures to combat the spread of HIV”.
However, he cautioned that “no one measure will, by itself, halt the upward trend in new infections seen in Ireland over the past few years.”
Early last month the Government announced the phased introduction of a drug-based HIV prevention programme through the free provision of PrEP for eligible candidates from at-risk populations.
The measure is supported by funding of €5.4m identified in Budget 2020, enabling the full roll-out of the programme next year.
PrEP is an oral medication taken by HIV-negative people to reduce the chance of getting HIV from having sex without a condom and from sharing needles or equipment to inject or use drugs.
The investment is in line with the recommendation by Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) in its Health Technology Assessment report 2019 which found that PrEP is safe and effective at preventing HIV in people at substantial risk.
It also deduced that the introduction of a PrEP programme would be cost-saving.
Recalling the organisation’s #5Asks campaign presented to members of the Oireachtas in 2018, Mr O’Hare said increased investment in a range of measures is also required if we are to make meaningful progress in reversing the upward trend of new infections and set Ireland on course towards a significant reduction in sexually transmitted HIV.
“Such measures, as highlighted by HIV Ireland and partner organisations throughout the country, must include greater investment in both health and community-based testing services which are currently bursting at the seams,” said Mr O’Hare.
“Similarly, increased public awareness of HIV and related stigma, and more resources for counselling and community support services are urgently required to meet demand,” he said.
The programme is set to benefit those who attend an approved service and are found to be at substantial risk for HIV and meet the clinical eligibility criteria for PrEP including gay and bisexual men and Trans women who have sex with men. Those found to be eligible will be able to access PrEP free of charge through community pharmacies.