HIV Drug Regimes: the Good the Bad and the African

27 Nov

[Cross poster from the pre-exposure prophylaxis blog]

The reactionary (or ‘mainstream’, if you prefer) view of HIV transmission in African countries is that it is predominantly a result of ‘unsafe’ sexual behavior. Early interventions to reduce transmission included exhortations to ‘abstain’ from sex, to be ‘faithful to one faithful partner’ (or something like that) and to use condoms (an approach that later became known as ABC). Most people didn’t know what words like ‘abstain’ and ‘faithful’ meant, but they became very good at repeating them until other interventions were dreamed up.

Like ‘ABC’, more recently touted interventions such as mass male circumcision and pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PrEP; the use of antiretroviral drugs by HIV negative people with the expectation of reducing the risk of infection), also depend on replacing some kind of ‘unsafe’ behavior with some other kind of behavior, deemed to be safe, or safer, or fervently hoped to be safer. Both circumcision and PrEP require that people also adhere to the strictures of the ABC approach (and if the name sounds paternalistic, that’s exactly what it is).

Ever-paternalistic when writing about Africa, the BBC has heard that “some sex workers are having unprotected sex – and taking antiretroviral drugs afterwards to cut the infection risk”. This is called post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP. It has long been available in developed countries to people who are accidentally exposed to HIV, through their occupation, as a result of sexual assault, etc, although it is probably not as widely available in high HIV prevalence countries with inadequate health services, low levels of education and poor drug supply systems.

The BBC article is claiming that sex workers should be using condoms, but sex workers themselves are pointing out that they can make more money if they don’t use condoms; clients are often willing to pay more. Most sex workers don’t have the massive number of clients that media outlets such as the BBC have reported in the past, so they need to get as much money as they can each time they do get a client. The BBC is also ‘concerned’ that sex workers are using PEP too often; some say the drugs should only be used a maximum of once a year, otherwise they may cease to be effective.

In contrast, those touting PrEP can’t speak highly enough of the use of drugs to reduce the risk of HIV transmission (as a look back through previous posts on this blog will show). Trials of such drugs are promoted in frequent press releases, perhaps in the hope of receiving the customary spontaneous standing ovation that some announcement must receive at every AIDS conference. The media generally picks up the press releases and spreads them far and wide, sometimes embellishing them with an extra layer of gilding.

PrEP and PEP are different. In general, PEP is taken after exposure. PrEP is taken before exposure by a person who faces a high risk of infection, or who is thought to face a high risk (which is just about every sexually active person in high HIV prevalence countries). But there are different versions of PrEP, daily and intermittent. The daily version involves taking the drug every day; but the intermittent version is taken just before sexual intercourse, or even just after.

Both versions require strict adherence to the regime, but it’s clearly a lot easier to take a drug just before or just after a specific event than to take a drug every day because you or someone else considers you to face high risks of infection. Intermittent PrEP is still being studied, but the general tone of Big Pharma press releases about PrEP is that it is a great thing, that trials are doing very well, and that if people (and governments) will just pay their exorbitant prices, everything will be great. Strangely, the tone used about PEP is usually far more measured; perhaps PEP is just not lucrative enough as a market?

But the BBC can’t resist the temptation to point (or at least wag) their finger. If people in African countries are infected, it’s because of their behavior. If interventions don’t work it’s because of people’s behavior. If drugs don’t work it’s because of lack of adherence. If people don’t appear to be following instructions it’s because they are failing to ‘adhere to the regime’. If people are infected and know it wasn’t because of their sexual behavior they are said to be ‘under-reporting’, or simply lying. Etc.

You get the picture. We are clever and they are not. Some people writing on the subject are even happy to use the word ‘stupid’, because the ‘good AIDS/bad AIDS’ dichotomy didn’t disappear in the 1980s, as it should have. It lives on in the media, in popular books about AIDS and various other sources. There are also different drug regimes available for the good and the bad, those who were infected ‘by accident’ and those who are ‘reckless’.


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