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World Health Organisation: HIV-preventing PrEP drugs are ‘Essential Medicines’

The World Health Organisation has added HIV-preventing drugs to its Essential Medicines List, in the strongest backing yet for the use of PrEP.

Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) drug Truvada can drastically reduce people’s chances of being infected with HIV, and is available in a number of countries to at-risk groups including men who have sex with men, sex workers and people in serodiscordant relationships.

The drug regime, which HIV experts say could be an invaluable tool for tackling HIV infections, won a strong vote of confidence from the World Health Organisation.

The WHO Essential Medicines List (EML) is used by many countries to increase access to medicines and guide decisions about which products they ensure are available for their populations.
In the updated list today, the health body listed  “drugs that can be taken to prevent HIV infection in people at high risk”.

It specifies: “These medicines are pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) with tenofovir alone, or in combination with emtricitabine or lamivudine, to prevent HIV infection”.

The listing may speed up the process of making PrEP available to at-risk groups. Many countries have been slow in adopting the new HIV-prevention method, citing issues with the cost – though even a small reduction in HIV transmissions saves money in the long term.

“Safe and effective medicines are an essential part of any health system,” said Dr Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Systems and Innovation.

“Making sure all people can access the medicines they need, when and where they need them, is vital to countries’ progress towards universal health coverage.”

Dr Michael Brady, Medical Director at Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “Today’s addition of Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, or PrEP, to the World Health Organisation’s Essential Medicines List, is yet further evidence for the need to make this vital HIV prevention tool available to people at risk of HIV here in the UK.”

“By including PrEP in this list, WHO have reinforced the effectiveness of PrEP, and its essential role for global health needs.

“Adding PrEP to our existing HIV prevention strategies, alongside condoms, treatment and regular testing, means we would have everything we need to bring an end to HIV transmission in the UK; where currently 17 people are newly diagnosed with HIV every day.”

In the UK, there has been substantial media debate about the provision of PrEP on the National Health Service (NHS), which would make it available free to the public on prescription.

Scotland’s health regulator has already given the green light to the provision of PrEP on the NHS, and it is due to be rolled out as soon as this summer.

The process in England has not been as smooth, as NHS England argued that devolved English healthcare laws actually place responsibility for interventions on cash-strapped local authorities.

However, after a legal battle NHS England agreed to launch a PrEP trial, meaning the drugs will become available in both England and Wales on a “trial basis” later this year.

PrEP stands for ‘Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis’.

In simple terms, it means taking a drug before you come into contact with HIV (Pre-Exposure), in order to build up your body’s defences against it.

Related: What is PrEP and how can I get it?

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