NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Giving antiretroviral drugs to people after they may have been exposed to HIV is an effective way to prevent them from contracting the virus, a new study shows.
What's more, people who know this option is available to them don't appear to be more likely to engage in risky behavior, Dr. Steve Shoptaw of the UCLA Department of Family Medicine in Los Angeles, who was involved in the research, told Reuters Health. "This is a viable way of helping people stay (HIV)-negative," he said.
So-called post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP, has long been available to people who risk HIV infection on the job, for example a health care worker accidentally jabbed by a contaminated syringe. In 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded its PEP guidelines to cover people exposed to HIV outside the workplace, for example through risky sex, condom breakage or drug use. But PEP still isn't widely used in such cases, Shoptaw and his team note, because it isn't covered by health insurance and is only very rarely offered as part of community health programs.
To investigate the feasibility of a community organized and funded non-occupational PEP program, the researchers conducted a demonstration project in which people were offered a 28-day course of anti-HIV drugs within 72 hours of potential exposure to HIV.
One hundred people, 95 of them men, participated. They received the drug treatment, HIV testing, and counseling for up to 26 weeks after enrolling in the study. Fifty-eight participants reported having unprotected anal sex, while 18 percent reported condom breakage.
Among the 84 people given the full course of medication, 75 percent actually took all the drugs. No one became HIV-positive during the course of the study.
Some health authorities have been reluctant to offer PEP after risky sex or drug use for fear that people wouldn't change their behavior if they knew "there's a parachute somewhere they can take to stay negative," Shoptaw noted. However, he and his colleagues found people reduced their risk behavior after using PEP, rather than increasing it.
He and his colleagues call for making non-occupational PEP programs more widely available to people at high risk of becoming infected with HIV. For now, Shoptaw noted, PEP is available only to people who can access it and pay for it out of pocket -- drugs and counseling together cost about $2,200.
Right now, "this is more of a social justice issue," Shoptaw said. "People who have means have access to this, people who don't, don't."
SOURCE: AIDS Care, published online October 24, 2007.