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Your cheatsheet to the HIV treatment you didn't know existed

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The news a couple months back that a condom with HIV-attacking properties could soon hit the market was both amazing and important.

The development of products that can reduce the transmission of this potentially deadly virus, especially ones that aren’t  painful or invasive, mark a huge step forward for sexual health for both men and women.

Yet what many people don’t realise is that there’s another HIV preventive measure that’s been around a lot longer than the VitaGel condom. It’s called PEP, colloquially known as the ‘HIV morning after pill’ – although it’s actually a month-long course of drugs.

Here’s what you need to know:

What is PEP?

Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) is a treatment that involves taking a course of antiretroviral medications – as prescribed by a doctor – within 72 hours of possibly being exposed to HIV. Doing this reduces a person’s chance of becoming HIV positive because it decreases the virus’ abilities to replicate, spread and establish itself throughout the body.

There are two types of PEP –  occupational (oPEP) and non-occupational (nPEP) – and the medications are taken daily for four weeks. It is usually offered as a last resort and is not guaranteed to work every time.

Who should use it?

PEP can be used by anyone who may have been exposed to the HIV virus and self-reports a high risk incident – for instance, unprotected sex, or a condom breaking during sex, with someone they suspect is HIV positive.

This doesn’t only apply to unsafe sexual activity. For instance, healthcare workers can be evaluated for PEP if they come into contact with a patient’s blood or bodily fluids that may contain the virus. The treatment can also be used by people who have shared needles when taking drugs, or victims of sexual assault.

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Are there side effects?

People who undertake PEP can experience side-effects like nausea, headaches, vomiting and diarrhoea, but these are usually temporary and end with the medication.

Can I get it in Australia?

Yes – you can access PEP at sexual health clinics or in the accident and emergency sections of most hospitals. To be sure, you can find a list of nationwide PEP providers here, as recommended by the Aids Action Council.

You can also call the 24 hour PEP Hotline to get the information and advice you need so you can get treated as soon as possible. Phone 1800 PEP NOW, or 1800 737 669 if you live in NSW.

For extra support, QLife also offers an after-hours phone counselling service for members of the LGBTI community to talk about health issues and their experiences negotiating the medical system.

How much does it cost?

The cost of a PEP regimen depends on which drugs are prescribed and how many are involved – usually it’s two or three. A three-drug PEP course can cost over $1000, whereas a two-drug course may cost around $500.

The Australasian Society for HIV Medicine’s National PEP Guidelines, funded by the Department of Health, provides a good rundown of these prices – see Appendix 1.

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Tags: hiv , sexual-health , sexually-transmitted-infections
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