Hundreds of queer men left vulnerable after PrEP clinic closes indefinitely

Prescription Doctor directly orders PrEP from their UK registered pharmacy, broadening the scope of how people can access the drug across the nation.(Daniel Born/The Times/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Queer men in Northern Ireland have been left at risk of exposure to HIV after a PrEP service was suspended indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Hundreds of men who were taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) through the GUM/HIV Risk Reduction Clinic in Belfast were told more than six months ago that the centre was closing as part of COVID-19 reorganisation.

The pilot project had secured funding until the end of March in 2021, however the centre was shut at the start of the pandemic as the health service funnelled its resources into dealing with COVID-19.

Green Party councillor Anthony Flynn hit out at the decision, telling The Irish News that more than 600 service users in Belfast were “left without support for months and months on end, without any information whatsoever about what happened to the service and what is going to replace the service”.

Flynn added: “A lot of patients were being safe and following the guidelines only to have everything just stop.

“We have to worry about the potential impact this could have on infection rates that we have been trying to get down.”

Queer men are wondering if they have been singled out as PrEP service ceases operating in Belfast.

Daniel Loughlin said he was able to get PrEP from a clinic in Derry, but feared new lockdown measures in Northern Ireland would make it impossible for many to do the same thing.

“We were told (PrEP) would be provided for us and suddenly it was closed and there is no word of when it will re-open,” he told The Irish News.

He questioned why the service had been stopped when other sexual health clinics remained open.

“Is it just gay men that are being treated this way?” he asked.

A spokesperson for the clinic said the project was ceased at the start of the coronavirus pandemic so resources could be used to battle COVID-19.

They said they were “hopeful” the service would be reinstated, but said such a decision would depend on the trust’s “priority for staffing and resources”.

“Discussions are on-going with Commissioners around recommencing this service including the potential to a roll-out of the provision of PrEP regionally in all trusts,” the spokesperson added.