Comment: I am on PrEP – here’s why it’s vital to helping to stop HIV

Lawyer and LGBT activist Richard Hendron explains why he takes HIV-preventing PrEP drugs.

The High Court decision on PrEP last week sparked a backlash against PrEP and those taking it.

The views expressed in the various articles, radio and TV programmes, including views of prominent members of the LGBT community, highlighted the sheer lack of understanding around PrEP and HIV prevention.

Channel 5 show The Wright Stuff described PrEP as a “free £20 million drug for gays who won’t use condoms”, while the Daily Mail called it a “lifetyle drug that encourages risky behaviour”, representing a so-called “skewed sense of values”.

These type of headlines that really drove home the lack of understanding around PrEP, the stigma around anything related to HIV, and the underlying prejudice and homophobia that still exists in society today.

Up until now, I have never disclosed to anyone that I am on PrEP, and have been taking PrEP for the last 6 months.

I have remained silent about taking PrEP even amongst good friends, and even when the subject came up.

I guess I chose not to tell anyone that I took PrEP as I feared being labelled – not to mention the stigma that I thought might be associated with it.

It looks like my fear of the stigma and being labelled was right.

Since the announcement we have seen PrEP being labelled as the “promiscuity pill”, the pill for “people that won’t use condoms”, and we have even seen HIV being pitted against other conditions such as cancer.

Even respected members of the gay community such as Iain Dale and Andrew Pierce of the Daily Mail came out in support of such single-minded bigoted narratives, suggesting people should “just wear condoms to prevent HIV”.

It is this utter ignorance especially from the gay community that has made me speak out about my experiences, in the hope that it may shed some understanding and reduce the stigma and labels that are associated with PrEP .

Until a year ago I was in a long-term, monogamous relationship of five years, but when that ended rather abruptly I found my self back on the scene… and making up for lost time.

As is often the case when relationships come to an end, individuals go through a hedonistic period, which more often than not involves many sexual partners over a short period.

I was surprised just how much had changed since I was single. In little over five years, it was clear to me that there had been a monumental attitude shift in relation to unprotected sex.

I am not sure why this was and to a large extent for the purpose of this article, it’s irrelevant.

But it is important to acknowledge that for whatever reason bareback sex is significantly on the increase, and is more acceptable than ever before. The taboos that used to surround bareback sex have largely disappeared or reduce.

it seemed to me that at least every other person that I had sex with was happy to practice unsafe sex – in fact, unless I asked if they had a condom, the sex would be unprotected sex in the majority of cases.

Even those most hardened safe-sex campaigners, while in the heat of the moment and in a climate that seems to promote bareback sex, can find themselves neglecting to wear a condom.

I never set out to have unprotected sex, but within a month or two of being back on the scene, I had gone from a position of always practising safe sex to one where I mainly did not, and without ever really making that conscious decision. It just happened.

The risk of HIV transmission was never far from my mind.

I did not want to get HIV, yet often as passion took over I would tell myself that it would be fine.

Every time I had unprotected sex I would get a feeling of guilt and fear.

I would often worry about the last unprotected encounter for days on end, and if I got anything so much as a cold I would convince my self that it must me HIV and I was seroconverting.

Frequently I would tell myself that I would not have unsafe sex again, as it was not worth the worry and fear.

Yet despite all of this; the worry, fear and anxiety that I would go through every time after I had unprotected sex, inevitably I would go on again to have unprotected sex again.

I can’t explain why. I knew it was dangerous and my brain would keep on telling me not to.

Perhaps it’s the same feeling that alcoholics and smokers experience, knowing the dangers, but yet repeatedly finding themselves unable to quit.

When people say “just wear a condom” to those who have bareback sex, it’s like saying to an alcoholic, “just don’t drink”, or to a smoker, “just don’t light up”.

Those sentences make sense, yet they simply don’t work. They’re ignoring the reality.

It’s time to accept there is a growing number of gay men who for a variety of reasons do not find condom use working for them.

We can either accept that and look forward with a view of preventing HIV transmission to this group (which would include PrEP) – or we lambast them and keep on repeating the same old mantra, knowing it’s not working. Without an intervention such as PrEP, a large number of this growing group will go on to be infected with HIV, further spreading the virus at a significant cost to the NHS.

But after months of trying to have safe sex I came to the realisation that condom use was not working for me, as I was not able to consistently use condoms.

I realised that If I wanted to stay HIV negative then I would need to consider other HIV prevention strategies – that’s when I went on PrEP.

I buy PrEP online from an overseas distributor that the 56 Dean Street clinic recommended, and at only £45 a month it’s a fraction of what it would cost if purchased on the NHS.

The benefits I have experienced since taking PrEP have been huge. I no longer experience the fear, worry and anxiety that I would experience after unprotected sex, and if I develop a cold I don’t jump to the conclusion that its HIV.

The greatest benefit of all is that I am HIV negative, and as long as I continue to take PrEP I will remain HIV negative.

I have no doubt in my mind that If it not for PrEP, I would be HIV positive by now.

And let’s not forget – the benefits of people staying negative extend far beyond the personal.

The cost of antiviral medication is estimated to be in the region of £300,000 per person per lifetime – and then there the other conditions that often are accompanied by HIV, not to mention the impact HIV has on mental health, and the likelihood of further transmission which leads to further significant cost to the NHS.

PrEP is not a drug that I and many others intend to take forever. When a relationship comes along again, it is more than likely that the need for me to take PrEP will not exist.

But for me and many thousands who are are currently at high risk of HIV infection, PrEP in not only providing peace of mind. It’s also preventing the transmission of HIV to thousands of people who otherwise would now be living with the virus.