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PrEP: Four little words to fight HIV

Just two decades ago, contracting HIV in South Africa was effectively a death sentence. We’ve come a long way thanks to civil society groups that forced Thabo Mbeki’s denialist administration to provide life-saving treatment – and the scientists who have worked tirelessly to develop a range of treatments. UNAIDS estimates that the provision of antiretroviral treatment since 2004 has saved more than 1.3 million lives in South Africa. 

Now one of the world’s leading HIV researchers, South African Professor Linda-Gail Bekker, has called for health authorities to focus their efforts on providing PrEP so it becomes as readily available as “fast food”. Think of PrEP – pre-exposure prophylaxis – as the closest thing we have to an HIV vaccine. Taking this oral medication daily has proven highly effective at preventing HIV infection. It has commonly been used among high-risk groups like sex workers and injecting drug users. It has been especially useful, research shows, in preventing infection in girls aged between 15 and 19. 

Bekker, speaking during a Twitter Space hosted by health journalism experts Bhekisisa, says it’s time for PrEP to go mainstream: “We need fast PrEP, like fast food. PrEP should be available at many points, in many ways. PrEP is not a luxury in this country; our HIV burden makes it a top priority.”

The good news is that PrEP’s availability is slowly but steadily rising since it was first introduced in public facilities in 2016. A total of 450 606 public healthcare users in South Africa have been given HIV prevention pills, Bhekisisa reports. The treatment is another useful arrow in our HIV-fighting quiver – and an important way for people to take responsibility for their own and their partners’ health.