PEP is one of the most effective HIV prevention drugs, but hardly anyone is talking about it… Here’s a run down of all the facts.
What is PEP and how does it work?
PEP, or Post Exposure Prophylaxis, is an emergency medicine which can help you from developing an HIV infection if you think you have been exposed to the virus.
HIV is still out there and while there isn’t a cure (yet!) it’s really good to know everything we can do to keep ourselves, our friends and partners happy and healthy.
- PEP isn’t a cure for HIV – it works as a preventative drug, so you have to be HIV negative for it to work
- It has to be started within 72 hours of coming into contact with HIV (ideally within a few hours,) and it makes becoming infected a lot less likely
- Some strains of HIV aren’t affected by the medicine yet, so even PEP is not 100% guaranteed to work
- You need to take the medicine for four weeks – it won’t work if you take it for less than 28 days or if you take it irregularly
How can you be exposed to HIV?
- Having unprotected sex (not using a condom)
- Having unprotected sex with someone who has HIV (eg. If the condom breaks)
- Using an unclean needle
If you think you’ve been exposed to HIV, don’t bury your head in the sand! There are options but you have to act quick.
In the UK, PEP is free on the NHS, but you can only get it through a prescription. It might not be available in all areas because GPs can’t normally prescribe it, but there are options…
You can get PEP from:
- A sexual health or GUM clinic (find your nearest clinic here)
- CliniQ* (a sexual wellbeing service for trans people)
When you ask for PEP you’ll be asked a few invasive questions such as…
- Who have you had sex with?
- Whether you’ve had oral/vaginal/anal sex etc
- If the other person definitely had HIV
- They’ll also ask you to take an HIV test
But it’s okay, they’re just trying to assess what your risk of infection is. They do this because PEP involves a powerful drug and they want to be sure that you’re only taking it because it’s necessary.
BUT if you think you are entitled for PEP treatment, but you are denied, there are some options…
If someone tells you ‘PEP isn’t available to the general public’ ask to speak to the ‘on-call HIV doctor’. Or call the Terrance Higgins Trust on 0808 802 1221 and they’ll be on hand for help.
- You have to take it exactly as instructed by your doctor! This is really important because if you skip a day, or don’t take it for the full month, the treatment probably won’t work.
- If you miss more than 48 hours of PEP you’ll have to stop treatment all together.
- Don’t double dose! If more than 24 hours have passed since your last dose, just take the next dose as normal.
- NO recreational drugs – we don’t know how they interact with HIV medication. So, tell your doctor about any recreational drugs you’re taking, and don’t be embarrassed or hide anything. Also include any herbal treatments or over the counter medications.
- 8-12 weeks after your PEP course has finished you’ll have to do another HIV test.
- Use condoms! Just because you’re taking PEP it doesn’t mean you’re completely protected, so use condoms.
PEP is a pretty strong drug, so it can have some quite severe side-effects
- prolonged headaches
If you’re already HIV positive, but you don’t know it yet, you could be at risk from developing resistance to PEP if you don’t take your dosage properly… this is something that you’ll need to discuss – with you doctor.
ALWAYS USE CONDOMS
PEP isn’t a ‘morning after pill’ and can’t work as a replacement for condoms. Condoms are cheap and also help the spreading of other sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy!
Let’s start spreading the word….
For more information on PEP and HIV you can visit the following websites, The Brook Advisory Centre, NHS, Terrance Higgins Trust, National Centre for HIV/AIDS, A detailed guide on PrEP, PEP, PEPSE and TasP .