What Does PrEP Mean for Condom Use?

August 5, 2014

PxROAR member Nicholas Feustel spoke about PrEP to the German magazine Männer. What follows is a translation into English Nicholas did for us. The original article, in German, is available here.

PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is all the rage in the HIV prevention field, especially since the WHO reviewed the strategy positively. It‘s a heated debate: Do we still need to wear condoms to prevent HIV infection? Are HIV-negative people going to ‘prep‘, i.e. taking the HIV drug Truvada, the only one of which we know for sure that it can prevent HIV transmission? To help answer some of these questions, we spoke with Hamburg resident Nicholas Feustel, who advocates for PrEP.

Nicholas, you work with “AVAC – Global Advocacy for HIV Prevention”. What do they do and why are you with them?

AVAC is an organization headquartered in the USA, which advocates for biomedical HIV prevention. Much of their work is introducing new prevention options in addition to condoms. I personally would like to advocate for the destigmatization of PrEP and people who would like to take PrEP here in Germany, even before PrEP becomes available here.

Is AVAC associated with the pharmaceutical industry?

No, not at all.

Who should be taking PrEP in your opinion? Many read the World Health Organization recommendations and thought, “just because I’m gay, it doesn‘t mean that I have to take medication”.

Yes, the WHO statement was misinterpreted by very many people. The WHO is not saying that all gay men are to take PrEP, but that all gays should consider it. The WHO recommendations act also as political statements rather than individual instructions. In this case, the WHO wants to push PrEP as an option, now that we know that it works.

However, who should be taking PrEP?

The main target group are people who do not or do not always use condoms during sex. It is for those who find that condoms are not an appropriate way to protect against HIV for them. With PrEP, they could still make the decision to protect themselves from HIV. There just are many who do not get along with condoms. Be it because they lose their erection when putting on the condom or they want to be close to their partner without a latex barrier. And we know that many of the new infections occur in supposedly monogamous relationships. Or, for example for women, if it is not possible for them to get their partners to use condoms, PrEP could provide suitable protective ability. Ultimately, I do not care why people don‘t use condoms, I do not want to judge their behaviour morally. Some just don‘t, period.

But haven‘t we got used to condoms more or less? Why change our strategy now?

No one is to change their strategy. If condoms work for you, absolutely continue to use them! But consider this: When HIV and AIDS emerged, condoms were the only way to have safer sex. As a result, we got drummed for 30 years that only gays who have sex with condoms are good gays. And sex without a condom is evil, evil, evil. Imagine we already had a PrEP drug when HIV and AIDS emerged. Would people have chosen to use condoms or take a pill once a day? I think people who do not or do not always use condoms are not “hedonistic bareback sluts”. Condoms are simply not the appropriate means to protect themselves from HIV. PrEP could be an alternative for them.

Condoms also protect against other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Yes, but not fully. Many STIs are transmitted during oral sex. If someone who doesn‘t use condoms, but takes PrEP to protect themselves from HIV, that‘s already quite something! And also, for a new PrEP prescription you have to go to see your doctor every three months, where they will test not just for HIV but other STIs as well. With PrEP, people engaging in high-risk behavior would go to see a doctor regularly and other STIs would be detected and treated early. This might even reduce the spread of other STIs.

The drug used for PrEP, Truvada, does have side effects, right?

Commonly seen side effects of Truvada are short term gastrointestinal problems which usually disappear after a few weeks, and not everyone will experience these. Long-term side effects may include impairment of renal function and bone density. Again, not everyone will experience these. The good thing is, if you take Truvada as PrEP you can stop taking it any time.If, however, someone has been infected with HIV, they will be on treatment for the rest of their lives. When arguing against PrEP because of side effects, one must always consider PrEP and HIV therapy are two different things. PrEP with Truvada consists of two active ingredients, normal antiretroviral therapies have three active ingredients, so there is the possibility of more side effects. And in HIV therapy there is also HIV in the body—this is also a health aspect.

But we still don’t know the long-term effects of PrEP and what risk there might be.

Of course we do not know what long-term effects PrEP may have. But Truvada has been used for 10 years in HIV therapy and is considered one of the best tolerated HIV drugs. And as the activist Peter Wiesner once said: Do we know the side effect of long-term, 20 years condom use? What does it do to our psyche? Instead of being able to have truly uninhibited sex – and I think there is nothing wrong with this desire – there is this constant fear of HIV, always the bad conscience, if you didn’t use a condom.

I think these considerations are, however, irrelevant, because we do know not everyone uses condoms all the time. We have not reached these people despite 30 years of prevention messaging around “fucking with condoms”. We could tell them for another 30 years, they just won‘t. Wouldn’t it be better to offer an alternative?

Why do we only hear of Truvada? Are there no other drugs available as PrEP?

Truvada is the only one we know from studies that, when taken daily, has a really high level of protection against HIV, higher than condoms. Currently there are also so-called long-lasting injectables in development. Then PrEP could perhaps mean just a once per month injection, or every three months, and you would be protected against HIV. However, it will probably take another 10 years until that is available.

For Truvada manufacturer, Gilead, PrEP must be a gold mine.

-ish! The patent for Truvada expires in 2017, then there could be generics, that is, exactly the same active ingredients, but from another manufacturer and cheaper. This means the prices will go down then. The PrEP market is not really exciting for Gilead, because it‘s not like millions of people will take PrEP. It will be only a small group of people who find that PrEP is the better method of protection for them. Do you think PrEP will play a role in Europe? I hope so! We have to admit: we are moving towards a post-condom era.

For those who want to use them, that’s perfectly fine, but there are also many men who simply can not be bothered to continue to use them after more then 20 or 30 years of condom use. Or young people who just haven‘t experienced all the dying. They say: Sure, we know the films of yesteryear, but now those taking drugs do well. And that is also what we want to achieve with the whole anti-stigma work: Nowadays you can live a normal life with HIV. Nevertheless, I find it is worth still trying to protect yourself from HIV. Science has moved on, and we know that those drugs that let people with HIV live long and healthy lives, and under successful therapy renders them virtually uninfectious, can also protect HIV-negative people from acquiring HIV.