By Luke Toomey
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Health Minister Simon Harris and Health Promotion Minister Catherine Byrne have announced that a HIV PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) programme will begin from November.
The programme will initially be rolled out in a limited number of clinics and will expand in 2020 following Minister Byrne’s announcement that €5.4 million is being made available in Budget 2020 for the full roll-out of a “world-class” PrEP programme in Ireland.
PrEP is a pre-emptive oral anti-retroviral medication for HIV-negative people to reduce their risk of getting HIV through sex or sharing needles. The combination of tenofovir and emtricitabine (sometimes known as truvada) is proven to be 92-99% effective.
To date, PrEP has been prohibitively expensive and has only been available to buy in Ireland on prescription at a price of over €400 a month for the brand-name medication, and around €100 for the generic equivalent.
“To date, PrEP has been prohibitively expensive and has only been available to buy in Ireland on prescription”
“The budget announcement of a PrEP programme for Ireland in 2020 is welcome although long overdue,” said Noel Donnellon, member of ACT UP Dublin, a group committed to ending the HIV crisis. ACT UP Dublin reformed in 2016, following the dramatic spike in HIV diagnoses.
HIV diagnoses reached a record high last year, with 531 cases in 2018 according to figures released by the HSE. The number is an 8% increase from figures in 2017. However, many experts are keen to point out that this rise is also related in part to an increase in the number of individuals getting tested.
“We will be carefully monitoring the roll-out, but we are concerned at the continuing underfunding of sexual health services that are needed to underpin a successful programme,” said Donnellon.
Those eligible for free PrEP, will need to get a drug payment scheme (DPS) card. There is no means test for a drug-payment scheme card but it does require a PPS number.
“For decades we have confined conversations about HIV to the shadows. Those living with HIV have felt stigmatised and shamed”
Minister for Health Simon Harris highlighted the importance of reaching this milestone.
“For decades we have confined conversations about HIV to the shadows. Those living with HIV have felt stigmatised and shamed,” he said.
“Today, all that changes. From next month, the State will introduce a PrEP programme and confront the increase in cases of HIV in a real and practical way.”
Dr Fiona Lyons, Consultant in Genitourinary and HIV Medicine, GUIDE Clinic, St. James’s welcomed the imminent availability of PrEP without charge to those at risk of acquiring HIV.
“PrEP is an important part of the HIV prevention jigsaw puzzle that together with other HIV prevention interventions, should reduce the number of new HIV infections in Ireland,” she said.
“I also welcome the announcement by the Government of the roll out of a PrEP programme which includes resources to support services to implement PrEP. This is crucial to successful PrEP implementation. I would like to thank everyone who has worked so hard to make this happen.”