Have you heard about PrEP, the amazing new daily pill that prevents HIV? So, is it for you? Here are some commonly asked questions about PrEP, how it works and how to get it.
Okay, so what is PrEP actually?
PrEP is just a single pill that you take daily (every day) if you are HIV negative (don’t have HIV) to stop you from becoming infected with HIV. If you take it daily, it offers more than 90% protection from HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Who should take PrEP? Is it for me?
PrEP is for anyone who is HIV negative and feels they are at risk of HIV, especially if you have condomless sex, or have various sexual partners. It’s also a great option to protect you from HIV if you believe or know that your partner is having sex with other people.
What happens if I don’t take it every day?
Easy. If you don’t take it daily it won’t work properly and you risk getting HIV. The less often you take it daily, the less effective it is. Come on; it’s one pill, once a day. That’s not too hard, right? If you very occasionally miss one dose (we’re all human) you should be fine – just take it the next day.
Do I have to take it at the same time every day?
Not necessarily, but taking it around the same time every day (e.g. at breakfast, at lunchtime or bedtime) will become a routine and will help you remember to take it.
Will PrEP work immediately once I start taking it? Can I take it on a Friday for the weekend?
Nope – don’t even try it. It takes a while for the medicine to build up in your body so that it can protect you from HIV. You need to take PrEP daily for at least seven consecutive days before you are protected when it comes to having anal sex. (It takes about three weeks for the medicine to build up sufficiently for vaginal sex.) To be safe, at least 20 days is recommended for everyone.
How long must I take PrEP for?
You need to take PrEP every day for as long as you want protection from HIV. Once you stop, the effect of the medicine quickly wears off.
What are the side effects of taking PrEP
There are very few and usually minor side effects (like dizziness, headaches or a stomach discomfort). Most people are not affected and when side effects do occur they usually go away after a month. If you have any issues with your kidneys, your doctor should check that they are not affected when you take PrEP.
Can I take PrEP and drink alcohol or take recreational drugs?
Yes, PrEP is not known to be affected by alcohol or recreational drugs.
Can I order PrEP online or go buy it over the counter at the chemist?
No. Before taking PrEP you must first have an HIV test to check that you are HIV negative as well as a kidney function blood test. And then you should be tested again one month after you start taking PrEP, just to be sure. PrEP is also a prescription-only medicine. That means you need to see a nurse or a doctor for the tests and for them to either give you the PrEP or give you a script to get it at the chemist. (You will also need to do a follow up and blood tests with your doctor or nurse every two or three months.)
Do I still need to use condoms?
That’s a tricky one. PrEP is very effective at preventing HIV and some people do choose to use it without condoms. Of course, nothing is foolproof, so also using condoms will definitely give you extra protection. Plus, remember that PrEP only stops you from getting HIV, and not other nasty sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like syphilis, chlamydia, or gonorrhoea (which condoms will protect you from).
Will PrEP cause people to be more promiscuous or have condonmless sex?
Maybe, maybe not. Even if it does, PrEP can save lives and helps prevent the spread of HIV. The fewer people get HIV the less the virus spreads, so everyone benefits! People who use PrEP should be praised for being responsible about their health and that of others, not judged.
Sounds great, but how do I get it?
In South Africa, PrEP is being offered free to gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (MSM), as well as sex workers, at certain locations in Pretoria (call 012 430 3272), Johannesburg & Soweto (071 683 3226) and Cape Town (071 683 3226). If you live outside of these areas, you will have to go to a private doctor (GP), ask for a script and pay for PrEP (we have heard that some medical aids do now pay for PrEP, so please ask).
This article is courtesy of OUT’s TEN81 Centre in Pretoria, a one-stop sexual health service for LGBT people and other men who have sex with men (MSM).