NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner has said federal approval for new treatments that could prevent HIV needs to happen as soon as possible and access to the drugs should be easy and economical for those at high-risk of contracting the virus.
Skinner spoke to the Star Observer earlier this week at an event at NSW Parliament to mark three decades since LGBTI health body ACON was formed.
[showads ad=MREC]The minister praised ACON’s work, noting a reduction in new HIV infections over a three-year period, as well as the bipartisan approach to fighting HIV in NSW.
“Through sheer determination [ACON] has helped shape national policy, influence law reform, fought against stigma and discrimination and supported HIV trials and clinical access,” she said.
“There’s been no politics, no scandalous media outrage and that’s reason why we’ve done so well in this state.”
Skinner said pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), which gives HIV-negative people access to HIV medication in order to reduce the risk of contracting the virus, was a key part of the NSW Government’s strategy to effectively eliminate new infections by 2020 — a target now adopted Australian-wide.
“I was slightly nervous when we introduced our HIV strategy because it relied upon the Commonwealth coming to the party about early testing and then early treatment [and] at that point they were not in the game,” she told the Star Observer.
“They have been since so it really is about continuing to provide the very rigorous and professional arguments to the Commonwealth and in areas like this, that can be confrontational and controversial, you’ve got to be absolutely rigorous in demonstrating the value of what you’re doing.”
While beneficial for those with a high risk of infection, PrEP is not currently approved for use in Australia by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) — the country’s peak regulatory body for medicines — nor is it listed under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), limiting access to and substantially increasing the cost of the medication.
Currently, HIV-negative men in Australia can only access PrEP through clinical trials, by purchasing the drug from the manufacturer which can cost as much as $13,000 a year or by importing the medication from overseas via the internet which can cost considerably less.
US pharmaceutical giant Gilead Sciences recently began the application process to have Truvada as PrEP approved by the TGA, and there have been calls for its the process to be fast tracked.
Asked how soon she would like to see PrEP given the TGA green light, Skinner replied: “We’d like to have it happen yesterday, but we just keep plugging away.”
Last month, Victorian AIDS Council acting chief executive Johann Ruth told the Star Observer proposals to charge GST on online purchases under $1000, backed by NSW Premier Mike Baird, could lead to a rise in HIV transmissions as it would increase the cost of importing PrEP from overseas.
Skinner stopped short of saying PrEP should be excluded from a future GST hike, but did say barriers to accessing the medications should be as low as possible.
“I think the easier we can make it for people to access the treatment drugs, the better,” she said.
ACON president Mark Orr backed the call for PrEP’s swift approval: “We need access to PrEP and I know minister Skinner and the ministry are working hard to secure that access here in NSW.”
Orr said when ACON was formed in 1985 no on knew what the future would hold, let alone that there would be a role for the organisation 30 years later.
“Those dreadful early days of the epidemic in Australia, with its epicentre in Sydney, showed the remarkable ability of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community — and our heterosexual friends and allies — to organise in the face of adversity, to heed the call to arms and mobilise an effective response and as a result ACON was born,” he said.
Information on how to access PrEP in Australia can be found at the ACON website.
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