NHS England accused of ‘feeding media’ negative stories about HIV-preventing PrEP drugs

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NHS England is facing questions over a statement on HIV-preventing PrEP drugs that fed many of the negative stories on the subject.

The National Union of Journalists said last week that coverage of the legal battle over Pre-exposure Prophylaxis commissioning, which saw NHS England defeated by an HIV charity, fell below expected standards.

The Daily Mail had claimed PrEP drugs are a “promiscuity pill” with a “skewed sense of values”, while Channel 5’s Wright Show led with “Free £20m drugs for gays who won’t use condoms”.

HIV groups have pointed to the statement put out by NHS England in the wake of the ruling, which appeared to lead to the press insinuations about gay men.

Previously, NHS England’s statements on PrEP have carried the explanatory note: “PrEP is a way of using anti-retroviral drugs – usually used for treating people with diagnosed HIV- to stop viral transmission. Evidence of effectiveness is strongest for men who do not use condoms in sex with multiple male partners.”

However, the August 3 statement instead said: “PrEP is a measure to prevent HIV transmission, particularly for men who have high risk condomless sex with multiple male partners.”

The NHS statement was also the source of suggestions that other patient groups would lose out, that were splashed across many newspapers.

Ian Green, Chief Executive of Terrence Higgins Trust, expressed extreme “concern” with the wording in a letter to NHS England’s Chief Executive Simon Stevens.

He wrote: “I am writing to express my shock and concern over the tone, language, and content of the NHS statement on PrEP dated 2 August, 2016, as well as the factual inaccuracies that it contained.

“The statement begins with the sentence, ‘PrEP is a measure to prevent HIV transmission, particularly for men who have high risk condomless sex with multiple male partners.’ The efficacy of PrEP is not related to gender, sexual orientation, condom use or number of sexual partners.

“Singling out gay men who do not use condoms is intentionally provocative, homophobic, offensive and inaccurate. This along with the statement that ‘given the ruling NHS England cannot now confirm funding for those treatments and services in levels three and four’ is disgraceful and irresponsible.

“I need to remind you that the only reason CPAG was not able to prioritise new drugs and therapies at their last meeting was due to the arbitrary decision to stop the approval process for PrEP.

“The only purpose of the above statement is to pit one patient group against another. The results can been seen in the sensationalist, moralistic headlines and homophobic statements being made in the UK press.”

He continued; “It is unacceptable for the National Health Service to misrepresent the facts and to portray gay men in this judgemental way.

“PrEP is not a moral issue. PrEP is a treatment which can stop a population with ongoing major health inequalities from contracting a life threatening disease with lifetime treatment costs of up to £380,000.

“That is all and it should be treated as such. I strongly urge you as Chief Executive of NHS England to authorise this statement to be withdrawn and a new release issued which deals with the topic in an appropriate manner.”

NHS England said they would respond in due course.