PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) is a HIV preventative medication that works by taking one pill every day. It can be taken by people who are HIV negative (people who don’t have HIV) to greatly reduce the chances of contracting the virus. Research has shown that PrEP is highly effective in preventing the sexual transmission of HIV when taken consistently.
The PROUD study in the UK reported that PrEP reduced the risk of HIV by 86% for men who have sex with men, while the American Centre for Disease and Control Prevention reported it reduced the risk of contracting HIV by up to 90%.
Despite the drug being recommended by the World Health Organisation and rising HIV figures in Ireland, the drug is not readily available here.
According to Lorcan O’Donnell, who led the ‘PrEP Now’ campaign in UL, Ireland is “in the middle of a HIV crisis” right now.
“One person is newly diagnosed every 18 hours, last year was the highest year on record and our government, our health minister and our Taoiseach refuse to do anything about it” he said. Truvada, a drug currently available in Ireland as part of Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP), for people who have had a potential exposure to HIV, has been licensed for use as PrEP in Europe since August 2016.
However, unlike other countries such as the United States, the drug can not be obtained for free here as it is not covered by the HSE’s Drugs Payment Scheme.
“PrEP is only legally available through prescription in Ireland which would cost about €400 a month. It can be got online and imported in, however this is illegal,” the Sports and Exercise Sciences student explained. This was being done up until recently, but then shipments of PrEP starting being seized. “Not only are the government just passively allowing HIV rates to rise, they are now actively stopping at risk groups of getting medication that could prevent them from getting HIV,” he said.
Last year, Mr O’Donnell organised one of the first rapid HIV testing days on an Irish campus in conjunction with Out in UL, the Students’ Union and GOSHH (Gender Orientation Sexual Health HIV) for SHAG week.
After the success of the rapid HIV testing day, O’Donnell realized this was an issue UL needed to get behind. O’Donnell said: “It’s really important that third level institutions are leaders in terms of sexual health because of the population that attend them and UL passing this has shown that we can be a leader on a national level and use our voice for good.”
Mr O’Donnell hopes that this will create a dialogue for students who may not have known about the rise in HIV cases in Ireland, and that it will inspire other universities around Ireland to do the same. “If every college or university in Ireland was calling for this, how powerful a message would that send?”
“[It is] more proof that young people are a powerful tool that politicians just seem to forget about, but we have opinions and we have things we want to change – so it’s time they start listening to us if they want to us to vote for them!” Mr O’Donnell also believes that students have a responsibility not to “bury their heads in the sand” and educate themselves on sexual health, STIs and HIV.