Note: This article was originally published in the University Observer, Vol. XXIII, No. 6. It was later published online.
With HIV figures increasing both at home and abroad, David Monaghan looks at the student-led ‘UCD for PrEP’ campaign and how effective the drug is in combating the disease.
RISING figures of HIV in Ireland have encouraged student activists to campaign for help in minimising its continued spread. ‘UCD for PrEP’ is a student-led initiative that aims to lobby the Students’ Union to take a proactive stance on introducing the drug ‘pre-exposure prophylaxis,’ or ‘PrEP’ for short. According to the American Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the drug is reported to reduce the risk of contracting HIV by up to 90% when taken daily.
PrEP is intended for people who are at high risk of contracting HIV. This includes individuals whose current partner is HIV-positive, as well intravenous drug users. It is a preventative measure that is readily available in some countries across the globe, and has been recommended by the World Health Organisation since 2015. It has been approved for usage by those at risk of contracting HIV in the United States, where depending on income it can be obtained for free, and France, where it was approved in November 2015 and introduced the following January.
However, the drug is not readily available in Ireland despite increasing concerns about rising HIV figures. According to Newstalk, 513 people were diagnosed HIV-positive in the country last year, a startling increase of 5.8% from previous recorded figures. Numerous factors have been suggested to explain such a jump in numbers: a failing sexual education system; dating apps like Tinder or Grindr; disconnect between LGBTQ+ individuals and the history of the virus. Whatever the reasons, it is clear that immediate action must be taken to combat the spread of disease.
“513 PEOPLE WERE DIAGNOSED HIV POSITIVE IN THE COUNTRY LAST YEAR, A STARTLING INCREASE OF 5.8% FROM PREVIOUS RECORDED FIGURES”
Finn McLysaght helped establish the ‘UCD for PrEP’ campaign with fellow activists. “There is a need [for PrEP]” they said. “HIV has reached a crisis point. There’s a new diagnosis every 18 hours.” The campaign was inspired by the work of ACT UP Dublin, a non-partisan group dedicated to using direct action against increasing HIV figures. “[It’s] a coalition to campaign for the introduction of PrEP and PEP [post-exposure prophylaxis],” McLysaght continued.
In Ireland the drug does not fall under the HSE’s Drugs Payment Scheme, and trials are ongoing to establish its effectiveness. “It would cost hundreds for a thirty day supply,” McLysaght says. “Most people don’t even know about it. I think only 51 people availed of it last year.”
The current actions of the HSE echo the debate surrounding the introduction of PrEP in the United Kingdom last year. According to the BBC, a trial was established to see how effective the drug would be in preventing HIV transmissions. The trial finished early when it became obvious that PrEP worked successfully.
“IT IS CLEAR THAT IMMEDIATE ACTION MUST BE TAKEN TO COMBAT THE SPREAD OF DISEASE”
Despite this, in 2016, the NHS decided not to fund the drug and said it was the responsibility of local councils to deal with its distribution. This was successfully challenged by the National AIDS Trust in the UK’s High Court.
McLysaght has met with Students’ Union Welfare Officer, Róisín Ní Mhara, and last week a motion relating to PrEP was passed by the SU council. The motion will see the Students’ Union campaign for the licensing of PrEP at the Dublin Pride Parade in 2017. Speaking to the Observer before the council meeting, Ní Mhara said: “My own personal belief is that, if you need it, absolutely you should take it. If you feel you need it and you warrant it in your life, who am I to say it’s not suitable for you to take?”
UCD Students’ Union currently has a plethora of information on sexual health on its webpage. How will the introduction of PrEP augment this current campaign? Ní Mhara continues: “I’m not sure how we’re going to slot it in just yet…because the drug itself isn’t licensed for use in Ireland [but] I would like to sign it into sexual health week somehow.”
“HIV HAS REACHED A CRISIS POINT. THERE’S A NEW DIAGNOSIS EVERY 18 HOURS”
Although the campaign is external to UCD LGBTQ+ society, the committee is still very much dedicated to campaigning for its licensing and usage. Philip Weldon, LGBTQ+ society’s auditor, states: “we took a vote last Monday [23rd], the first committee meeting of semester two, and we all voted in favour to support [the drug], by making the campaign visible at our own events. For example, simply things like stickers. We’re more than happy to display it on our own materials at coffee mornings and other events.”
At present, the campaign has not been met with opposition at any level. PrEP is known to create minor side effects, such as nausea and diarrhoea, but these are known to pass after a few days. “There are side effects,” McLysaght says, “but that’s part of the territory of taking any medication. They’re pretty minimal.”
With HIV diagnoses increasing, a trend that has not been curbed in recent years, it is becoming increasingly obvious that direct action must be taken to stop its escalation. Trials have shown that PrEP is effective in combating HIV, and so necessary measures are needed to see its licensing both at home and abroad.