Back HIV Prevention Pre-exposure (PrEP) AIDS 2016: Australia Adopts Ambitious Plan to Use PrEP to "Virtually Eliminate" HIV

AIDS 2016: Australia Adopts Ambitious Plan to Use PrEP to "Virtually Eliminate" HIV

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Australia plans an ambitious program of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) provision for gay men at high risk of HIV, with the aim of "virtually eliminating" HIV in the gay community by 2020, Iryna Zablotska from the University of New South Wales told delegates at the 21st International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2016) this week in Durban. PrEP roll-out is also underway in some countries in Kenya and South Africa.

[Produced in collaboration with Aidsmap.com]

Zablotska said that in order to meet the costs of providing free PrEP to an estimated 14,000 users, generic tenofovir and emtricitabine would be used instead of Truvada, and in order for this to happen straight away, the PrEP rollout would initially, at least, be in the form of scientific implementation studies, one per Australian state. The New South Wales program has already been launched under the name of EPIC-NSW. Programs in Victoria and Queensland are due to start soon and other states will follow suit next year.

"There are 4 essential things that had to happen in order for a PrEP program like this to happen," she said. "We had a Ministry of Health that was actively committed to making PrEP happen, a positive consensus for PrEP among medical professionals, a supportive network of sexual health clinics and gay-friendly GPs, and a proactive LGBT health community that devised innovative awareness and social media campaigns."

PrEP is needed in Australia for the same reason it is in many countries; after a peak of 2411 diagnoses in 1989, annual diagnoses fell to 750 in 1999, but have since then slowly climbed to 1081 in 2014 and show no signs of slackening. Three-quarters of HIV infections in Australia are among gay men. The Australian treatment cascade is 88% diagnosed, 73% of them on treatment, and 92% of those virally suppressed -- in other words 59% of all people with HIV virally undetectable, 13% short of the UNAIDS 90-90-90 target.

Australia, however, is the first country providing PrEP to suggest that it could be what will make all the difference when it comes to rolling back its HIV epidemic and bringing incidence down. Zablotska agreed with session chair Helen Rees that this was the aim: "We have been very successful with testing and treatment; PrEP might be the last tool we need," she said.

Surveys conducted between 2011 and 2015 show accelerating awareness of PrEP. One in 40 "community-attached gay men" said they have already taken PrEP acquired online or from friends and, depending on survey, between 1 in 30 to 1 in ten men at the kind of risk that would be covered by the criteria for the rollout study. A study in 2012 found that only 21% of at-risk gay men said they would be interested in taking PrEP, but by the following year this had increased to 71%.

EPIC-NSW was launched on March 1 this year, 2 months in advance of PrEP being approved for prevention by the country's drug licensing agency. Studies supporting the adoption of PrEP included 2 PrEP pilots -- PrELUDE and VICPrEP -- which started in New South Wales and Victoria, respectively, in 2014 and are still ongoing. To this has been added Qprep in Queensland, which started this year. Between them, however, they have only enrolled 465 men. It is estimated that 100,000 gay men in Australia are at risk of HIV (1 in 230 Australians) and nearly 15,000 at the kind of risk that would meet the criteria for PrEP rollout.

These criteria are based on incidence studies, which find that annual HIV incidence among men presenting with rectal gonorrhea was 7%, and with chlamydia, 3.2%. Among people with a regular HIV-positive partner who was not virally suppressed, incidence was 5.4%, among men who’d recently had condomless sex with a partner of positive or unknown status it was 2.3%, and among methamphetamine users it was 1.9%. The criteria for EPIC-NSW is that the person must have had one of these risk factors in the last 3 months. Background incidence in PrELUDE participants was estimated as 4%.

Based on these criteria, it was estimated that 3700 men who have sex with men in New South Wales would be eligible for PrEP. The aim was to fully enroll EPIC-NSW by December 31 but, said Zablotska, "It appears we grossly underestimated the effect of the launch and the number of participants." In fact, 1000 gay men enrolled in the first 7 weeks of the study. EPIC-NSW will continue until December 2018.

The Victoria equivalent to EPIC-NSW, enrolling 2600 men, is due to start next week.

Kenya and South Africa's Programs

In countries with lower incomes or higher HIV burdens, PrEP will need to be introduced more gradually or its cost borne by global HIV funders.

Kenya has 1.5 million people living with HIV out of a population of 42 million (3% prevalence) and a steady 71,000 new infections every year, a figure that has scarcely varied in the last 10 years.

Michel Kirugu from the Kenyan non-governmental organization LVCT Health told conference delegates that evidence for the efficacy of PrEP in Kenya had been gathered from a number of studies, including the Partners PrEP demonstration project and studies such as the MP3 combination prevention project for youth and studies run by LVCT Health itself, and the sex worker’s organization SWOP, some of which were ongoing. Following these and Kenya’s decision to license the use of PrEP at the beginning of this year, funding had been agreed upon to roll out PrEP to more people.

The U.S. global funder PEPFAR would be providing PrEP for young women through its DREAMS project, Partners PrEP would be continuing its demonstration project for couples, and JHPIEGO, the international public health NGO run by Johns Hopkins University, would be running PrEP provision programs for men who have sex with men and female sex workers in collaboration with LVCT Kenya as part of a project called "Bridge to Scale” which, as its title implies, is designed to bridge the gap to nationally-run programs.

Kirugu said that providing the funding for PEP was only part of a successful rollout. Training health providers would be extremely important, as their willingness to recommend and prescribe PrEP would inevitably be influenced by their personal values and level of knowledge. PrEP implies wholesale changes in some people’s "un-useful paradigms of communicating prevention messages," he said. In particular, less emphasis was needed on negative strategies such as strengthening the fear of health risks, and more on the positive aspects of taking control of your HIV risk such as increasing self-esteem and intimacy.

He added that Kenyan programs still needed to make decisions on what they considered to be substantial risk of HIV, they needed to be cautious about risk assessment so as not to reinforce stigma, they needed to decide how to monitor for adherence, and they needed to decide not only on referral pathways and criteria for starting PrEP, but also criteria for stopping it. PrEP also implied the adoption of alternative, innovative models for service delivery such as community provision, since community-led education and advocacy would be crucial to devise ways of accessing PrEP people would actually use.

Hasina Subedar of the HIV/AIDS section of the South African Department of Health spoke about PrEP rollout in AIDS 2016’s host country. PrEP was licensed by South Africa last December, its first guidelines were finalized in March, and its first recipient received her pills though the Department of Health-funded program on June 1.

South Africa, with its huge potential demand and limited resources, has decided pragmatically to phase PrEP in to different high-risk groups sequentially. This is not just because the potential cost cannot immediately be met, but because sexual health services for groups such as men who have sex with men have not yet finalized their referral and provision procedures.

As a small group but one with potentially very high prevalence, a large number of contacts, great vulnerability, and a strong infection potential -- female sex workers -- are being chosen as the first group to receive PrEP and 11 clinics that provide sexual health services specifically for this group are the sites; 7 are urban sites in Gauteng province, Durban, Pietermaritzburg, and Cape Town, and the other 4 are rural sites at truck stops on highways.

The number of female sex workers given PrEP initially has in fact not been that large. In the program’s first month, 833 sex workers came forward for testing, of whom 154 (18.5%) tested positive -- 60 (39%) of these immediately started ART. In contrast, only 94 of the 679 who tested negative (14%) started PrEP, 43 at one site. This is partly to do with female sex workers not knowing about PrEP; however, in some places they have displayed quite sophisticated knowledge. Helen Rees said that female clinic patients who had originally rejected PrEP in trials returned after it was licensed, saying "now the government has licensed it, we feel PrEP is safe and not just an experiment."

Slow provision is a lot more to do with health providers needing to be trained to get over initial uncertainty and reluctance to recommend or prescribe PrEP. In established female sex worker clinics, nurses test the women and prescribe ART already, but the "trucker sites" are new to HIV and sexual health provision and will need more support to start.

Although PrEP is being provided at facilities designed for female sex workers, Hasina Subedar said that if other at-risk people requested PrEP, it would be supplied. The first male PrEP client was in fact a policemen whose partner was a sex worker, and he requested and was given PrEP because he recognized that he was at risk too.

7/22/16

References

I Zablotska. Expanded implementation of PrEP across Australia. 21st International AIDS Conference. Durban, July 18-22, 2016. Workshop presentation WEWS0805.

I Zablotska, AE Grulich, R Guy, et al. Expanded PrEP implementation in communities in NSW, Australia (EPIC-NSW): evidence-based implementation study. 21st International AIDS Conference. Durban, July 18-22, 2016. Abstract FRAE105.

M Kirugu. PrEP rollout in Kenya. 21st International AIDS Conference. Durban, July 18-22, 2016. Workshop presentation WEWS0802.

Y Pillay (presenter H Subedar). Strategic approaches of the South African government as it considers PrEP implementation. 21st International AIDS Conference. Durban, July 18-22, 2016. Workshop presentation WEWS0803.