People at high risk of becoming infected with the HIV virus will soon be able to access free medication to protect against it in B.C.

Starting on Jan. 1, the province of British Columbia will cover the costs of pre-exposure prophylaxis treatment, also known as PrEP, and involving the drug Truvada, for at-risk patients. The groundbreaking treatment that protects against HIV was developed in B.C., but its high cost made it inaccessible to many — until now.

Thanks in part to an agreement to secure a generic form of Truvada, a once-a-day pill, by the B.C. Centre for Excellence for HIV/AIDS, the province has agreed to cover costs. 

"By bringing down the cost of Truvada, both for treatment and prevention, it makes a great opportunity for us to expand on our abilities to effectively control HIV in the province." said Dr. Julio Montaner, director of B.C. Centre for Excellence for HIV/AIDS and a pioneer of the treatment.

Montaner says that targeting groups who are most at-risk for being infected with HIV will be a key part of the success of the medication.

"If we were to capture the people who are at the highest risk of HIV infection … we could actually see a dramatic decrease in new infections in the next several years," said Montaner.

"All together, this [treatment] is part of our strategy to bring down HIV altogether so we can open the door to a truly HIV-free generation in the future. "

Long wait for coverage

"We've been waiting for this for a long time," said Neil Self, chair of the board of directors of Positive Living B.C. and organizer of a campaign to get PrEP covered by the province.

In 2016, Health Canada approved the use of Truvada as a PrEP, but did not cover the costly medication. Unable to afford the thousands of dollars to pay for the drug out-of pocket, some people sought out the drug online. In Vancouver, a group of gay men who called themselves the Davie Buyers Club helped to make the online purchasing process easier for those in need.

Men who have sex with men are disproportionately at risk of contracting the disease compared to other men, according to a 2017 report by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

Self is now hopeful that the drug will make a huge difference for people in the both the gay and HIV-positive communities who have not been able to afford it.

Self explained the drug can help people who want to prevent HIV, as well as people who are HIV positive and want to have a relationship with some one who is not HIV positive.

"It gives those people peace of mind," he said.

Drug can help fight stigma

Self also believes that once the drug becomes commonplace, the stigma of HIV-positive people will decrease. 

"We know we get a lot of negative stigma in this community. I really think it's going to reduce the stigma because it will be just like using a condom, and there is no stigma associated with that. "

While there has been criticism that PrEP could encourage risky sexual behaviour, Self says that the most important part is being able to help at-risk people for whom more conventional methods don't work. 

"This will really help the people falling between the gaps and contracting HIV, and the sooner we can end transmission of HIV, the better."