African researchers have discovered that antiretroviral drugs normally used in the treatment of HIV could also be used to protect people without the virus from infection.

Published in the Cochrane Library (an independent collection of evidence-based databases), the researchers’ report calls for policies that would allow the drugs to be distributed to people deemed more at risk of contracting HIV, such as men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSM), drug users and people in the developing world.

Stellenbosch University (South Africa) researcher Charles Okwundu led the research project involving more than 9500 people deemed ‘at risk’ of contracting HIV, which looked at the use of ‘pre-exposure prophylaxis’ (PrEP) as a preventative.

The study found that people who took the drug Tenofovir (marketed as Truvada) had their risk of HIV infection cut by nearly two thirds.

“Our findings suggest that antiretroviral drugs can reduce the risk of HIV infection for people in high-risk groups,” Okwundu said.

While PrEP is similar to ‘post-exposure prophylaxis’, or PEP,  they are not exactly the same. PEP is administered to patients who have had a significant exposure to the virus and PrEP is designed to be given to groups deemed to be at risk. PrEP is also designed to be a daily medication without the severe and devastating side effects from the four weeks of PEP treatment.

Okwundu said that the PrEP treatment strategy may still need to be combined with existing treatments, as no strategy was likely to be 100 percent effective.

As with most medications, the researchers pointed out potential side effects of the treatment. PrEP could cause bone-density loss, kidney damage and, if the drugs weren’t taken consistently (the recommended dose is taken daily), people could develop infections that resist the drug that could also be passed on to others.

“There also are concerns that PrEP will lead to an increase in high-risk behaviour,” Okwundu said.

“If PrEP is not completely effective, even a partial reduction in use of safer sex could lead to an increased rate of HIV transmission.”

Professor of sexual health medicine at the University of Sydney, Adrian Mindel, told Ninemsn that the drugs could be useful to the gay community in Australia.

“The major method of transmission in Australia remains men-who-have-sex-with-men and there has been a great lot of discussion amongst the gay community about how this might be part of a broader perspective,” he said.

Mindel continued to promote the use of condoms to reduce transmission and also providing infected people with the best-required treatment.

PrEP currently attracts a fairly large price tag which means it’s not an available option for everyone. The treatment isn’t covered through the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), though Mindel is hopeful that it may be available under Medicare at some stage.

Approximately 35 million people worldwide have HIV and the latest Australian statistics report that more than 21,000 Australians live with the virus and more than 6700 people have died from AIDS-related illnesses in Australia.

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