What is PrEP, does it have side effects and how do you get it?

Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, was a game-changer when it arrived on the market, helping to prevent a person from contracting HIV when taken daily.

But what is it actually like taking the drug, and should you be taking it?

Phil Samba, co-creator of the Me. Us. Him. campaign, told PinkNews that the main benefit of being on PrEP is that it “takes away the anxiety and the fear of contracting HIV” from sex.

“The people that should take PrEP are people that are at higher risk of contracting HIV,” Samba explained. 

“That includes men who have sex with men (MSM), people of African or Asian origin, sex workers, and trans women in particular.”

How do you use PrEP and does it have side effects?

Samba explained that PrEP can have some side effects, including headaches and nausea, but that they can subside after a few days of taking the drug regularly. 

“I’ve been on PrEP for eight months now, and I’ve had no issues,” he said. “I did have a couple of side effects, I think on the first day, but I think I took it without food. Every day following that I’m completely fine.”

Samba also explained that while PrEP can prevent people from contracting HIV, it does not protect you from all STIs, so condoms should also be used.

Experts explain that PrEP and condoms are two of four proven methods which, when combined, can stop the spread of HIV. The other two involve regular HIV testing, and treatment upon diagnosis of HIV to achieve an “undetectable” status.

If people who have HIV have been taking effective HIV treatment and their viral load has been undetectable for six months or more, it means they cannot pass the virus on through sex. This is called undetectable=untransmittable (U=U).

How to get PrEP in the UK

PrEP available free on the NHS in England from sexual health clinics, and in Scotland and WQales from sexual health clinics.

Despite PrEP being a critical aspect of HIV prevention, experts have warned that sexual health services in the UK are at “breaking point”, and around two-thirds of people in the UK are unable to readily access PrEP, according to a 2022 report.

That report found that most people wait longer than 12 weeks for an appointment at a sexual health clinic to access PrEP.

Speaking to PinkNews ahead of World AIDS Day this year, Claire Dewsnap, president of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) said: “Relatively speaking your budget to deliver the work that you are supposed to be delivering has gone down pretty significantly wherever you are, and in some places that’s worse than others.

“The result is that sexual health services don’t have enough staff, so they’re having to prioritise urgent care. Preventative work, such as PrEP, ends up taking a back seat. 

“To me, every new diagnosis of HIV is a tragedy and a wasted opportunity. Nobody should be catching HIV or acquiring HIV in this day and age.”

Greg Owen, co-founder of iwantPrEPnow.co.uk, explained that part of the solution is in giving PrEP to everybody who needs it, with outreach to people of colour, people in rural areas, or those who don’t have access to the internet.

“If the system is failing those people who are highly motivated and clued up and very proactive in trying to access PrEP and failing, we are further compounding the inequalities we see in the HIV response year on year,” Owen said.

To learn more about HIV and AIDS research, testing and treatment, visit amFAR or the Terrence Higgins Trust.

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