Today people have more choice when it comes to protection from HIV than ever before, from traditional ideas of abstinence, limiting the number of sexual partners, and less risky sex, to the perhaps more appealing methods of medical testing and condom use. However, recent advances have provided us with two more options that give people even more choice and more control over their own bodies, Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) and Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP).
PrEP is an antiviral drug used to attack the HIV virus as a method to prevent HIV from taking hold in the body. It is a powerful prevention tool that can be used by people who are HIV negative to stop them from being infected. The pill is taken once a day to provide ongoing protection. Additionally it must be taken every day for 20 days before having sex without a condom and must be taken for 30 days after the last time one had sex without a condom.
The advantages of PrEP is that it allows people to be in control over their own health and wellbeing, providing them with the confidence and security that they can engage in sexual behaviour without the anxiety of HIV risk. And perhaps even more radically it allows people with HIV a method to offer their partners to keep them protected. It is particularly recommended for people with multiple sexual partners and those likely to engage in riskier sexual behaviours.
PrEP can be used by most people with minimal to no side effects however some may feel nausea, dizziness, headaches, tiredness, stomach cramps and diarrhoea. The drug can also affect the kidneys in the long run and regular check-ups are recommended.
So while PrEP is used daily as a preventative to the HIV virus, PEP is an emergency drug taken after an incident where one believes that they have been exposed to HIV in order to stop them from contracting the virus. It functions by halting the replication of HIV in the body and strengthening the immune system.
It is most useful when someone is accidently exposed to HIV, such as having a condom break during sex and should be started as soon as possible after exposure, best within a few hours. If it is not taken within 72 hours of the event it will most likely be ineffective. It is best to still go to the doctor to be tested for HIV even if the treatment is taken within the recommended time period, as HIV infection is still a possibility. A final test 3 months after possible exposure is also a smart move.
The treatment process takes around a month to complete and must be taken at regular times, every day during this period. While most do not experience side effects, some might feel headaches, nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting, and usually these side effects are present only for the first week.
However, keep in mind that while PrEP and PEP are powerful tools for preventing the spread of HIV, condoms are still a vital method of protection against other sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhoea, syphilis and herpes. So, while it may be tempting to use this as an opportunity to get rid of condoms altogether, they are still an important part of our arsenal for safe sex.