A proven tools in the fight to prevent HIV/AIDS has finally been given the federal nod of approval.
Federal health officials at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommended on Wednesday that Americans at risk for HIV/AIDS take a daily pill — Truvada — that helps prevent infection when exposed to the virus.
The endorsement could impact hundreds of thousands of Americans deemed high-risk for exposure, which include gay men, heterosexuals with bisexual partners, and anyone who shares needles or injects drugs.
Till now, a fraction of physicians who approved of the drug were actually prescribing it to patients. A survey found 74 percent of doctors supported Truvada, but just nine percent were writing scripps. The CDC’s endorsement is likely to change that.
Truvada is made by Gilead Sciences and costs $13,000 a year. Most insurers already cover it, and is the only pill approved by the Food and Drug Administration to prevent HIV.
The therapy is also known as Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis or PrEP. If taken properly, studies have shown the pill can reduce the chance of HIV infection by 99 percent.
The federal approval is not without controversy. Some critics fear that the drug could discourage the use of condoms – a CDC survey in November that indicated the number of gay men who had recent unprotected sex rose 20 percent between 2005 and 2011.
“Logically speaking, why would you take the medication if you intend to use condoms?” asked
Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, in an interview with Fusion last month. “By and large, whether they’re gay or straight, men don’t want to use condoms. So if you give them an additional reason not to, they’re going to take it.”
The CDC is endorsing the drug under the assumption that patients will use it in conjunction with condoms. But health officials are concerned that some men will stop using them, raising the risk of contracting other diseases, like gonorrhea, syphilis and herpes.
But with an estimated 50,000 new HIV infections every year in the U.S. and the lifetime treatment cost at a whopping $379,668, the CDC concluded that the benefits of taking the drug outweigh the risks.
Generic versions of Truvada are already available in countries like India, and once they’re approved stateside, the cost of the drug regimen will fall dramatically.
The drug has already changed the lives of many who felt helpless before learning about what it could do for their lives.
Max Cameron and Andy Clements of San Francisco, Calif., have been dating for more than a year. Cameron works in special education, and Clements is a chef.
Clements has been living with HIV for the past 14 years, and Max is HIV-negative.
“I’m not a very big believer of love at first sight. But, when I saw him, I was like ‘whoa’,” Cameron told us.
It wasn’t until a few months after they started dating that Cameron discovered a medication that would change their lives.
“I first heard about the HIV prevention pill from a friend of ours, “ Cameron said. “I asked ‘What is this all about?’ Are there side effects? Tell me about it.’”
Because they are both on the medication, Cameron’s risk of infection has been drastically reduced.
“The pill has definitely helped us become more intimate,” Cameron explained.
There’s another reason Cameron takes Truvada. He’s a gay adult film actor, and he participates in porn that’s condomless. His costars include both HIV-negative and positive actors. We spoke to his coworkers during a shoot and asked if guilt was a factor when having sex with someone who’s negative. Cameron HIV-positive costar Christian Matthews told us, “I disclose my status 100-percent to the studios and to all the people I work with. There’s no hidden agenda.”
“I always put my status out there, so the other person can decide if they want to go through with it,” another performer Kory Mitchell said.
Dr. Robert Grant of San Francisco, Calif. was a pioneer in the research of the drug, and performed the first trials on the medication before the FDA gave their stamp of approval in July 2012.
“The HIV prevention pill works by blocking the HIV virus growth inside cells, so the virus can get into the body, but it doesn’t spread,” Dr. Grant explained.
Before the CDC’s endorsement, the pill was relatively unknown, and wasn’t even marketing by the manufacturer, Gilead.
We reached out to Gilead to ask about their decision not to market the drug. In a statement, they wrote:
“It is true that we do not have any immediate plans to initiate a marketing or advertising campaign. Instead, we are focusing our efforts on education initiatives designed to reach healthcare providers, community organizations, and individuals who may benefit from this intervention.”
For Cameron, Truvada is a welcomed layer of protection for those who need it.
“I can’t speak for all gay men but generally gay men like to go out and have some drinks and let our guard down and sometimes we’ll do things we may regret the next morning when we wake up and sometimes you will have unprotected sex sometimes because you got drunk one night. And I think it’s still important to take responsibility for yourself,” Cameron said.