THE Victorian AIDS Council (VAC) recently held a forum earlier this week to discuss HIV prevention and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) with a focus on the major impact it has already had overseas.

The evening’s presenter was San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s chief medical officer Dr Robert Grant, an expert in HIV research who has undertaken various studies on HIV prevention.

[showads ad=MREC]The forum, held on Tuesday night, was similar to one in Sydney on Monday night that was hosted by ACON.

Since the US Food and Drug Administration approved PrEP in 2012, new HIV transmissions in San Francisco have dropped by 30 per cent.

Grant said he believed this success could be achieved in Australia, with PrEP being one of the keys to ending new transmissions.

“We’re here to imagine possible futures, and I think we’re excited and grateful to be imagining together a world with no HIV disease, no HIV transmissions, and no HIV stigma,” he said.

“We’re here to imagine Australia free of HIV, and in this moment I think we need to appreciate that this is a moment of possibility.”

PrEP has not yet been approved in Australia, and to purchase it locally costs upwards of $1000 per month. This forces most local gay men to import it online from overseas for over $100 per script.

For it to be affordable and accessible, PrEP needs to be approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) — Australia’s peak regulatory body for medicines — and placed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), bringing the cost down to around $38.80 per script.

VAC health promotion and policy director Colin Batrouney said the forum reaffirmed the effectiveness or PrEP and the need to make it accessible in Australia.

“Grant’s research has demonstrated again and again that if PrEP is taken as prescribed people are completely protected against acquiring HIV,” he told the Star Observer.

“Of course STIs other than HIV are a major concern which points to the needs for regular testing.”

At the forum, Batrouney said the idea was raised that regardless of one’s sexual lifestyle, all gay men should have access to PrEP.

“Rather than characterising PrEP as only being useful to those ‘at risk’, at various points in the lives of gay men they may need the protection of PrEP and this ought not to be made difficult,” he said.

The VAC has been advised that every week in Melbourne and Sydney up to 50 men are asking their sexual health physicians about PrEP, and the avenues to access it.

US pharmaceutical giant Gilead Sciences recently began the application process to have its Truvada drug as PrEP approved by the TGA, and although there have been calls for the process to be fast trackedthe result of this application won’t be known until early next year.

VAC senior policy analyst Heath Paynter was the host of the forum. He said with the success of Grant’s research overseas, the time for action is now.

“The conversation is very real now,” he said.

“By this, I mean PrEP is part of the conversation that gay guys are having as we negotiate risk and discuss sex.”

Paynter also mentioned that when PrEP was first approved in the US, it was met with considerable opposition.

“PrEP was, at least initially, cast as a strategy that increased promiscuity and risk,” he said.

“In effect, the boy on PrEP was seen by many as a ‘bad gay’… but this is wrong.

“Every scientific trial on PrEP indicates that individuals who use PrEP daily are at no risk of HIV, and their sexual practices do not drastically change.”

RELATED: The Case for PrEP

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