PrEP: effective and empowering

Author: Marieke Bak

Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is a new HIV prevention method that consists of a daily pill taken by HIV-negative people to reduce their risk of becoming infected with HIV. PrEP is highly effective in preventing HIV transmission, as scientific research shows. A large international study among gay men and transgender women, the so-called iPrEx trial suggested that PrEP can reduce the risk of HIV infection by at least 92% when the pills are taken consistently. PrEP is also effective when used by heterosexual men and women, as well as by people who inject drugs.

Although PrEP is more expensive than other HIV prevention methods, it can be a cost-effective tool, especially when delivered to people at high risk of HIV. By preventing the costs of lifetime HIV treatment, PrEP may even lead to healthcare savings, especially when the drug patents expire and the cost drops.

Moreover, PrEP is the first method of HIV prevention that is directly under the control of the at-risk individual. This is in contrast with treatment as prevention (TasP), which is dependent upon partners’ HIV treatment adherence to ensure suppressed viral load. Besides, because PrEP separates the act of prevention from the sexual encounter, it can be used without sexual partners knowing and provides additional protection when condoms are not used consistently.

The World Health Organization now recommends that PrEP should be offered as a choice to key populations affected by HIV as well as to anyone else at substantial risk of HIV infection.

TRANSFORMING HIV INFECTION

PrEP is a pill consisting of anti-retroviral drugs that needs to be taken every day in order to be effective. Currently, the only drug approved for use as PrEP is sold by Gilead Sciences and is called Truvada, which consists of a combination of tenofovir and emtricitabine (TDF/FTC). Truvada was first approved for prevention in 2012 in the United States of America.

In contrast to PEP, or post-exposure prophylaxis, PrEP is taken before exposure to HIV to prevent any possible transmission. PrEP works by blocking an enzyme called HIV reverse transcriptase, thereby preventing HIV from establishing itself in the body. While PEP can be thought of as a “morning-after pill” for HIV prevention, PrEP can be compared to the contraceptive pill that is taken every day. Similarly, PrEP may transform HIV infection just like the pill transformed family planning.

The most common side effects of Truvada for PrEP are nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headache and fatigue, although these symptoms usually resolve within a few weeks. Some people in trials also experienced small changes in kidney function or a decrease in bone mineral density. An updated version of Truvada was created that contains a new form of tenofovir, which is thought to be safer for bones and kidneys. At the moment, the so-called “Discover study”, is being set up in North America and Europe to investigate the new PrEP medicine called Descovy.

By the way, PrEP does not protect from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Fears that PrEP might be used as a “party drug” exist. However, in the iPrEx study as well as in a meta-analysis by the World Health Organisation, it was shown that PrEP does not lead to an increase in the number of STDs and has no effect on condom use. Rather, PrEP reduces the fear and anxiety that often comes with sexual activity for those at high risk of HIV.

However, because PrEP is not 100% effective and because it does not protect from STDs, it should not be used as a standalone prevention method. According to WHO guidance, PrEP should be offered as part of so-called “combination prevention” which includes the use of condoms as well as regular follow-ups and HIV testing.

PREP IN EASTERN EUROPE AND CENTRAL ASIA

Despite the recommendation to offer PrEP to people at high risk of HIV infection, the global availability of PrEP remains limited. The PrEP target set by UNAIDS in their strategy on ending the HIV pandemic is to get three million people on PrEP by 2020. However, only 2% of this target had been reached in June 2016.

At the moment, Truvada for PrEP has been approved in the United States, Canada, Australia, Peru, South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Israel, and the European Union. Approval is pending in Brazil and Thailand. In the European Union, PrEP has been approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) although the implementation of PrEP programmes is the responsibility of each member state separately. To date, only France and Norway have made PrEP available as part of their healthcare system. Scotland recently announced that it will do the same.

In Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA), PrEP is not available yet. However, demonstration projects are currently being set up in Georgia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. These pilot studies consist of several phases. In Georgia, the first stage of PrEP implementation included a training session for those involved in the pilot, as well as the conducting of a needs assessment among Georgian men who have sex with men (MSM) and capacity building for local NGOs, before the actual start of the pilot in 2017. In Central Asian countries, there seems to be less interest in PrEP, although the Ministry of Health of Kyrgyzstan is planning to start an evaluation on the possibilities of introducing PrEP in the country.

Challenges of introducing PrEP in EECA may include the cost of PrEP, but also the high levels of stigma and discrimination in some countries. However, with HIV incidence in EECA rising by 57% between 2010 and 2015, treatment alone will not stop the epidemic. Given its proven effectiveness, providing PrEP to key populations can be a significant step in controlling the explosive growth of the HIV epidemic in this region.

Reversing the HIV Epidemic

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Source: European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC)

HIV remains a significant public health problem in the 31 countries of the European Union and European Economic Area (EU/EEA), with around 30 000 newly diagnosed HIV infections reported each year over the last decade. In a two-day conference organised in collaboration between the Maltese Presidency of the Council of the European Union and ECDC, HIV experts from across the European Union discussed how to reverse this trend and how to prepare Europe to achieve the set target of ending AIDS by 2030.

“This conference arose from excellent collaborative work with ECDC and Malta’s commitment and recognition of the importance of placing HIV higher up on the EU agenda during its Presidency Term” says Mr Chris Fearne, Minister for Health, Malta. “We believe that concerted efforts must include all stakeholders: including governments, healthcare providers, civil society, people living with HIV and the specialised agencies like WHO and ECDC. We believe that tackling HIV is a regional, national, corporate and individual responsibility. They all have a role to play in terms of political commitment, preventive action, universal access to healthcare, affordability and access to medicines, testing, linkage to care, focus on key populations, zero tolerance to stigma AND individual behavioural responsibility.“

He added areas of action: “Scaling up of testing is essential to reach our first 90 target. We need to make better use of various settings to enhance testing, incorporate innovative approaches to testing and reduce the barriers, especially in key populations. Knowledge of HIV status ‘in unaware persons’ might also help reduce new HIV infections – those resulting negative may then take less risks, and if linked to care should achieve viral suppression, the third 90“.

“If we take a look at the available data, we can see that Europe needs to improve its HIV response in several areas”, says ECDC Acting Director Andrea Ammon. “Currently, two out of three EU/EEA countries tell us that they do not have sufficient funding for prevention interventions. And every one in seven people living with HIV in the region are not aware of their infection. To reduce the number of new HIV infections in Europe, we need to focus our efforts in three main areas: prioritising prevention programmes, facilitating the uptake of HIV testing, for example by introducing new approaches like community-based testing or self-testing to diagnose those infected. And, of course, easier access to treatment for those diagnosed”.

Pharmaceuticals-Healthcare-Pill-World-Map-Earth-1185076Status quo of Europe’s HIV response: new ECDC report
On the occasion of the Presidency meeting, ECDC publishes an overview of achievements and gaps in the European HIV response, illustrating how countries addressed the HIV epidemic in 2016, based on their commitment outlined in the Dublin Declaration on Partnership to Fight HIV/AIDS in Europe and Central Asia.

The results show, amongst others, that HIV treatment overall starts earlier across the EU/EEA and more people receive life-saving treatment. But one in six people in the EU/EEA diagnosed with HIV are still not on treatment. Those who are on treatment, however, show how effective current HIV treatment is: almost nine out of ten people living with HIV on treatment are virally suppressed. This means the virus can no longer be detected in their blood and they cannot transmit the virus to others.
The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) contributed to this overview with data on the HIV situation and prevention coverage among people who inject drugs.

EMCDDA Director Alexis Goosdeel states: “People who inject drugs have the highest proportion of late diagnosis of HIV, compared to other transmission groups. Providing voluntary testing for infectious diseases, risk behaviour counselling and assistance to manage illness at drug treatment facilities is an important additional avenue to reach this group and is among the new EU minimum quality standards for demand reduction” .

The introduction and scaling up of effective drug treatment and harm reduction measures, such as needle and syringe provision, have significantly reduced drug injecting and related HIV transmission in Europe. However, this overall positive development hides large variations between countries. Marginalisation of people who inject drugs, the lack of prevention coverage, and appearance of new drugs can trigger local HIV outbreaks, as documented in five EU countries in the recent past.

Source: European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control 

Reasons for Drug Policy Reform

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Text: Michel Kazatchkine, UN secretary general special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

Why is eastern Europe the only region in the world that still has a growing HIV epidemic? In one of the region’s countries, Russia, more than two thirds of all HIV infections, and 55% of the near 100 000 new infections reported last year, resulted from drug injection.

Some 3.2 million people in eastern Europe inject drugs, and about 1.5 million of them are in Russia. In 2007 the number of newly reported HIV cases among Russian people who inject drugs (12 538) was similar to the number in the rest of eastern Europe (12 026). But since then the numbers have diverged hugely.

Scaling up of harm reduction programmes in several countries coincided with a stabilising of HIV rates—and fewer than 7000 new cases outside Russia in 2014. In Russia, however, where access to sterile needles and syringes is low and opioid substitutes remain illegal and unavailable, the number of people who inject drugs newly infected with HIV climbed to nearly 22 500 in 2014.

Criminalisation of drug use

The reasons for Russia’s high figures include the prohibition and effective criminalisation of drug use, repressive law enforcement, and stigma around drug use. These factors lead people to inject in unsafe conditions for fear of police and arrests and result in needle sharing and overdose.

In 2015, the United Nations’ secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, called for “careful rebalancing of the international policy on controlled drugs.”

“We must consider alternatives to criminalisation and incarceration of people who use drugs,” he said. “We should increase the focus on public health, prevention, treatment, and care.”

The World Health Organization, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and UNAIDS jointly recommend a package of harm reduction interventions as best practice to reduce the risk of acquiring, and improve treatment of, HIV, hepatitis, and tuberculosis among people who inject drugs. Such strategies, which do not require prohibition of harmful behaviours, are key to reducing death and disease because drug dependency is characterised by people’s inability to abstain.

Continue reading here.

Nearly two-thirds of European HIV cases are now in Russia

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Source: ria.ru

The annual number of new cases of HIV increased by at least 8% in 2015 in the whole of the World Health Organization (WHO) European region, and by 60% in the last decade, according to last month’s annual surveillance report by the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) and WHO Europe.

A continued increase in new diagnoses in Russia was responsible for most of the increase. The previous year, as aidsmap.com reported, 60% of European-region new cases were in Russia. In 2015 this increased to 64% of all cases.

The 98,177 diagnoses recorded last year in Russia equate to one HIV diagnosis for every 1493 Russians each year. In comparison, the 55,230 diagnoses recorded in the rest of the WHO region represent one diagnosis for every 13,157 people – one-ninth as many per head.

The number of new HIV diagnoses in Russia has increased 15% in one year, 57% since 2010, and 133% since 2006. Russia admitted this year that more than a million of its citizens have HIV. This is 0.8% of its adult population and is at least the same number as the US in a country with 45% of the US population. At the current rate of increase, this prevalence will double to 1.6% in the next 12 years.

Excluding Russia, 46% of infections in the WHO Europe region were ascribed to heterosexual sex, 26% to sex between men, and 13% to injecting drug use – and less than 1% to mother-to-child transmission. In the last ten years, infections in men who have sex with men (MSM) have increased by 38% and in heterosexuals by 19%, but have fallen in injecting drug users by 38%. In Russia, heterosexual sex is the cause ascribed to half of all recorded cases and a third to injecting drug use.

WESTERN, CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE

In western Europe (which also includes Israel and Greece for WHO’s purposes), and in the European Union (plus Norway, Switzerland and Iceland), the number of new cases of HIV have remained almost static. In western Europe about 30,000 new cases have been reported each year from 2010 to 2014 and in the EU 32,500. An apparent slight decline in 2015 (10% in western Europe and 8% in the EU/EEA) may be due mainly to delays in 2015 reports arriving.

Central Europe – which includes the former communist countries running from Poland down to the Balkans, and also Cyprus and Turkey – remains a low-prevalence area for HIV, but saw a 78% increase in infections from 2010. However, there are signs that a feared acceleration of HIV in these countries may have slowed, with only a 4% increase registered between 2014 and 2015, though this does conceal larger increases in infections in gay men in some countries, including Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. However, many of these countries still have the lowest rate of new infections in Europe, with Macedonia (one infection per 83,000 people last year) and Slovakia (one per 62,500) reporting the lowest rates.

In eastern Europe, which comprises all the former Soviet states (including Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which are in the EU) if Russia is excluded, the annual number of new diagnoses has stayed flat or fallen slightly (by 9%) since 2010, though the percentage due to heterosexual sex has more than doubled to 65% of the total and the proportion due to injecting drug use has fallen to 26% of the total. The slight overall fall in eastern Europe conceals big increases in some countries with relatively low HIV prevalence, including Georgia with a 48% increase since 2010, Cyprus with a 95% increase, and Belarus with a 116% increase.

INFECTIONS IN MEN WHO HAVE SEX WITH MEN

In western and central Europe the epidemic is increasingly concentrating in men who have sex with men. In the last ten years, the proportion of infections due to heterosexual sex in western Europe has fallen by 41% and to injecting drugs by 48%, while the proportion due to sex between men has increased by 7%.

The proportion ascribed to sex between men in eastern Europe is still only 4% – but this in fact represents a tenfold increase. In some states such as Belarus and Estonia, infections in MSM were regarded as scarcely existing ten years ago – which means that the 58 cases recorded in Belarus and the 18 in Estonia last year represent proportionally big increases. In Russia sex between men still officially only accounts for a tiny proportion of new HIV cases – 1.5%. However, WHO does not regard Russian data as “consistent” and excludes it from some of its analyses.

The increases in infections in gay men seem to be starting to occur in some countries further east than previously. Georgia, for instance, saw a nearly 50% increase in the annual HIV diagnosis total from 2010 to 2015, a 12-fold increase in gay men, and a threefold increase in MSM from 2014. Belarus saw a 166% increase in HIV cases and a fourfold increase in gay men. Ukraine reports similar increases in gay men against a background of falling diagnoses in other groups. Increases in MSM infections were also reported from the central Asian countries of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. These increases are from a very low base, though, and may just represent that more men testing HIV-positive are prepared to admit they caught HIV from other men.

OTHER CHANGES IN INDIVIDUAL COUNTRIES

One country that has seen big relative increases in HIV is Turkey. The 2956 cases reported last year represent a 5.5-fold increase over diagnoses in 2010 and a 62% increase in one year. Because Turkey is a populous country (75 million), this still represents a low rate of infection (one per 37,000 head of population per year, less than a third of the UK’s rate), but Turkey may be a country whose HIV epidemic is worth watching.

In the EU, Latvia and Estonia had the highest rates. While Estonia’s formely explosive needle-driven epidemic continues to shrink, new HIV cases have increased by 43% since 2010 in Latvia. Notably, Latvia has been till very recently the only WHO Europe country whose national HIV treatment guidelines still recommended treatment should not start till CD4 counts had fallen below 200 cells/mm3.

Western European countries that saw increases in recent years include Malta, where the new HIV diagnosis figures leaped by more than 50% last year and have risen more than fourfold since 2010, though the absolute number of people with HIV in this small island country is still low, at about 300 people in total.

Another country that has seen significant increases since 2010 is Ireland, with a 47% increase relative to 2010 and a 43% increase from 2014 to 2015 – again, mostly in gay men.

The UK still reported by far the largest number of new cases of HIV of any country in western Europe to ECDC – 6078 reported to ECDC last year, way ahead of France, with the second highest number at 3943. However, the annual diagnosis figure has fallen since 2005, as we reported last September, including for the first time a tiny (1%) decrease in diagnoses in gay men. The diagnosis rate per head of population, one per 10,638 people, was second only to Luxembourg’s in western Europe in 2014, but in 2015 was overtaken by Portugal, Ireland and Malta.

One needs to be cautious about saying HIV cases have fallen in specific countries because there is such variation in the number of delayed reports sent to ECDC. However, since 2010 there have been significant falls in HIV diagnoses, exceeding the falls seen in the UK, in France, Spain and Italy.

In France there appears to have been a significant drop of 30% in diagnoses notified between 2014 and 2015, and a 40% drop in gay men. Fewer than 1000 HIV cases were reported in French gay men last year, a third as many as in the UK. In contrast reported diagnoses have risen by 36% in Germany since 2010 (33% in gay men) and this country reported nearly as many new HIV cases as France last year.

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Source: UNAIDS

MIGRANTS, LATE DIAGNOSES, AND AIDS

Over a quarter (27%) of new diagnoses in the WHO Europe region were in people not born in the country where they were diagnosed. While two-thirds of this 27% represent people from outside Europe, primarily high-prevalence countries, infections in migrants from outside Europe fell by 29% in the last ten years while infections in intra-European migrants increased by 59%.

Nearly half of all new diagnoses (48%) were in people with CD4 counts below 350 cells/mm3. The proportion of these late diagnoses was 55% in heterosexuals and 37% in gay men. It was also 64% in those over 50 years old. Over a quarter (28%) were diagnosed with CD4 counts below 200 cells/mm3, and 12% had an AIDS-related condition at diagnosis.

Regarding diagnoses of AIDS (in both newly-diagnosed people and the already diagnosed), there were 14,579 reported in the WHO European region last year. Diagnosis of any AIDS-related condition was extremely rare in central and western Europe – only one person per half a million head of population in central Europe, and one person per quarter million in western Europe. In contrast one person per 10,000 head of population had an AIDS diagnosis in eastern Europe, including Russia. This means that AIDS diagnoses in eastern Europe were more common than HIV diagnoses in all western European countries bar Ireland, Luxembourg and Malta.

INTERPRETING THE FIGURES

ECDC’s figures always need to be interpreted with caution. Russia, with its huge preponderance of HIV cases, reports a much more limited and more irregular set of figures to ECDC than most other countries. The efficiency of HIV surveillance and the proportion of late reports vary widely from one country to another.

The proportion of people diagnosed also varies widely. If testing rates increase in a country, then it may look as if new infections are increasing when they are not. Some countries, including large western European ones like the UK and Germany, do not collect centralised, verifiable figures for HIV tests. In those that do, testing rates vary hugely. In Kosovo, for instance, just three HIV cases were reported last year – but that is probably because only 1312 tests were conducted, representing 0.07% of the population. In contrast, Russia performed over 28 million tests – meaning it tested more than 20% of its adult population. Generally, HIV testing rates are higher in eastern Europe than they are in central and western Europe. This tends to mean that higher testing rates compensate for lower reporting rates.

It is in central European countries like Poland (0.62% of the adult population tested) and Serbia (0.71%) that low rates of testing imply low rates of diagnosis – meaning that there may be considerably more people with HIV in these countries than appears to be the case.

REFERENCE

The 2015 ECDC/WHO Europe HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report can be downloaded here.

Source: www.aidsmap.com

AFEW Director is the Chair of TB/HIV Working Group

ankeAFEW executive director Anke van Dam became the chair of Wolfheze Working Group on TB/HIV collaborative activities. The group will document and promote the best models and identify research priorities of integrated TB/HIV care in the European region. Members of the group will also identify barriers in TB/HIV services and collaboration.

“I am very honoured to be part of the group,” – Anke says. – “AFEW is implementing integrated HIV/TB activities in the EECA region for quite some years now. I will bring this experience into the group, and hope to contribute to collecting best models. There is still so much to gain in improving the care and health of people living with both HIV and TB.”

Wolfheze TB/HIV Working Group started a year ago in The Hague, The Netherlands. There, Wolfheze and WHO National TB Programme Managers’ meeting participants discussed the need for strengthening TB/HIV collaborative activities in the context of the WHO End TB Strategy. They agreed to create a Working Group on TB/HIV collaborative activities taking into account specific challenges and opportunities in the WHO European region.

Website about Health for Migrants is Available in 13 Languages

 

health-site_engThe information about body, family planning and pregnancy, infections, sexuality, relationships and feelings, rights and law can be found on the website Zanzu – my body in words and images. This projects for migrants was developed by the Flemish Expertise Centre for Sexual Health Sensoa and the German Federal Centre for Health Education (Bundeszentrale für gesundheitliche Aufklärung) BZqA. The information is available in 13 languages, including Russian and English.

Information on the website is presented in easy interactive form. Pushing the image brings the reader to other pictures, behind which they can find important information. Section “Dictionary and translations” will provide users with the translations of most widely-used words on the topics mentioned above. On the website there are also contacts of the doctors who help migrants with their health issues.

Besides, on the site there is information for professionals in English, Dutch and French languages. This section contains advice to the foreign professionals on how to talk to migrants and why it is important to discuss their health issues. The content on the website was approved by an international advisory board of European experts in the field of sexual and reproductive health including representatives of WHO.

European Hepatitis Awareness Week is Celebrated for the First Time

1329521660_500x506Today, only 1 in 20 people with viral hepatitis know they have it. And just 1 in 100 with the disease is being treated. This year AFEW is joining the celebration of the First European Hepatitis Awareness Week on 25 – 29 July, the week of World Hepatitis Day, falling on 28 July.

A staggering 95% of people infected with hepatitis B or C around the world do not know they are infected. One reason for this is that people can live without symptoms for many years. When they find out they have hepatitis, it is often too late for treatment to be fully effective. As a result, liver damage becomes cirrhosis or liver cancer.

By 2020 the World Health Organization would like to see five million people receiving treatment for chronic hepatitis B virus infection, three million people having been treated for chronic hepatitis C virus infection and the number of new cases of chronic hepatitis infection reduced by 30% compared with the number of new cases in 2015. The longer term aim is to reduce new viral hepatitis infections by 90% and to reduce the number of deaths due to viral hepatitis by 65% by 2030 from 2016 figures.

The Hepatitis B and C Public Policy Association encourages you to sign the petition and to ask European and national policy-makers to officially adopt the “European Hepatitis Awareness Week” which would become an occasion to hold intensive, coordinated awareness-raising and educational activities across Europe.