A trial of 3,700 people in New South Wales was announced on World Aids Day in December, and last week a similar trial of 2,600 people was announced in Victoria.
A smaller trial of 150 men in Queensland began last year, but advocates are pushing for that to be expanded.
The trials make Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) available to men who have sex with men, as a means of preventing HIV transmission.
PrEP — manufactured by Gilead and marketed as Truvada — is not licensed in Australia by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and is therefore not available at a subsidised price through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), but many gay men are resorting to importing the drug from overseas.
International clinical trials have proven that when taken once a day, PrEP can reduce the risk of infection by up to 90 per cent.
The Queensland AIDS Council (QuAC) has urged the State Government to match or beat PrEP trials of the state’s southern neighbours.
QuAC executive director Michael Scott said while some men were importing PrEP, until the numbers accessing PrEP reached a critical mass, the benefits of the drug may not be realised.
“I do not want the situation in 2020 where we knew we had mechanisms to prevent HIV transmission in 2016, but did nothing in Queensland because it was too hard,” he told the ABC.
“We need widespread access to PrEP now not only to meet 2020 targets, but because it is morally and ethically responsible to provide every means to reduce HIV transmission to Queenslanders now and in the future.”
Queensland Health Minister Cameron Dick said it was important to remember Queensland was the first state to introduce PrEP trials.
He said he had “not ruled out” expanding the trials, but did not provide any solid dates.
But he said the larger goal was to ensure PrEP was introduced to the TGA and therefore available to all gay men.
“Our Government recognises the valuable role PrEP can play in strengthening our chance of further reducing the number of new HIV cases we see in Queensland,” Mr Dick said
“But the best way for PrEP to become widely available and accessible to those who need it is through its approval by the Therapeutic Goods Administration and listing on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.”
Doctors in Australia can prescribe Truvada “off label” at a cost of about $140 for a three-month supply.
Another option is to purchase a generic version of Truvada from a reliable overseas supplier and import it to Australia.
Sexual health control a ‘human right’
Research suggested about 27,150 people in Australia were HIV-positive in 2014, with 12 per cent unaware they had positive status.
In Australia, HIV transmission continues to occur primarily through sexual contact between men.
Mr Scott said PrEP should be viewed as a human right, as much as the contraceptive pill is for women.
“The pill was liberating for women to take control of their sexual health and in the same sense this enables many men to take control of their sexual health … it’s a human right,” he said.
He said while gay men in cities such as Brisbane and Cairns could import PrEP through specialist doctors, many men in regional areas were missing out.
Mr Scott said hundreds of men had contacted QuAC about obtaining PrEP in just a few months. But at Brisbane’s Clinic 30, there are just two doctors to meet the growing demand.
His dream would be for men to be able to obtain prescription and visit any chemist across the country for the HIV prevention tool.
He said similar to the education campaign for the use of condoms in the 1980s, PrEP would eventually be normalised in gay culture.
He estimated as many as 3,000 gay men would be interested in accessing PrEP, but current pathways to the drug could be difficult and expensive.
“If there are 101 steps to obtaining PrEP, many people could be turned off,” Mr Scott said.
“If the process of accessing PrEP is seen as easier, more men would take up the offer.”
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