19,000 Australians now using PBS subsidised anti-HIV drugs

19,000 Australians now using PBS subsidised anti-HIV drugs

March 25, 2019

About 19,000 Australians have taken advantage of anti-HIV drugs in the first two years of groundbreaking PrEP regimen being subsidised via the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

Researchers point to the increasing number of HIV-positive Australians starting early anti­retroviral treatment to prevent its development and spread.

The latest surveillance report from the Kirby Institute estimated 27,545 people were living with HIV in 2017, and a recent decline in new diagnoses showed the ­potential for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to protect gay men from infection. Tenofovir with emtricityabine, most commonly known as Truvada, was listed on the PBS last April for PrEP against HIV for those considered at medium to high risk. When used alongside other safe sex practices, PrEP helps prevent transmission of HIV, however it is not without risk. Two Australians are understood to have contracted HIV while on PrEP.

Local guidelines supporting the use of PrEP were released in 2017, but the drugs were cost-­prohibitive — about $13,500 for a 12-month supply, unless special access could be arranged — until the federal government agreed to PBS subsidies.

A Department of Health spokesman said that as at mid-January, about 19,000 patients were using PrEP.

The Australian reported in 2015 that the Australian Defence Force had been providing PrEP to two members. While the ADF was applauded by specialist health groups, for being one of the first major organisations to provide PrEP, it cut access until April 2017. A Defence spokesman said more than 50 members had been prescribed Truvada since then, and the take-up had ­increased since the PBS listing.

In the Medical Journal of Australia today, researchers led by ­associate professor Rebecca Guy from the Kirby Institute report that the proportion of patients with HIV infections who start ­antiretroviral therapy within six months of diagnosis increased from 17 per cent in 2004-05 to 53 per cent in 2013-15.

“Further strategies are needed to maximise the benefits of treatment,’’ they concluded.

The institute noted the rate of HIV notifications rose 41 per cent in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population between 2013 and 2016.

With syphilis also spreading through indigenous communities, and surging again in the second half of 2018, governments have provided more funding for health services and launched a new bloodborne virus and sexually transmissible infections strategy.