New coverage of HIV prevention drug a 'game changer,' Alberta sexual health advocates say

A costly HIV prevention drug will soon be universally covered by the Alberta government, a move sexual health advocates say could lower rates of the disease.

PrEP pill is up to 99 per cent effective in stopping the transmission of HIV

Truvada, an HIV prevention drug, can cost up to $1,000 per month. The generic form of the drug is $250 per month — about $8.30 a day. (CBC)

Sexual health advocates say a new HIV prevention drug to be covered for eligible Albertans should help lower transmission rates of the disease.

Starting Oct. 1, the cost of pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP — a daily pill that is up to 99 per cent effective in stopping the transmission of HIV — will be covered for eligible Albertans.

The government will also expand the number of physicians who can prescribe the medication, said Premier Rachel Notley, in an announcement Saturday.

The generic form of the drug is $250 per month — about $8.30 a day. The brand name, Truvada, can cost up to $1,000 per month.

The high costs have made the drug difficult to access for some vulnerable and at-risk Albertans, said Laura Keegan, director of public engagement for HIV Edmonton.

"This is a real game changer," Keegan said. "It's the right public health decision to have PrEP made available. Paying for prevention is less than paying for treatment.

"It makes sense economically to prevent a costly transmission."

Alberta is the seventh province to cover the costs of PrEP. More than 200 people in Alberta were diagnosed with HIV last year, said Pam Krause, executive director of the Centre for Sexuality in Calgary.

"The rates have not been going down the way we'd like to see them, so we really need to continue to work on these prevention strategies," Krause said.

PrEP will go a long way in helping prevent the spread of HIV, she said. "Anyone who is at risk of contact with someone with HIV, this drug can help them."

Keegan said the next step will be to educate doctors and the medical community to ensure the drug is available to people who are most vulnerable to HIV transmission. That means ensuring it's not seen as something only intended for the gay community, she said.

"It's not a magic bullet and it's not going to miraculously change everything the way a vaccine or a cure might, but it's a huge shift and allows us to move to a place where we can lessen the impact of new HIV infections by giving people the tools to be able to prevent HIV," Keegan said. 

'It's a smart move'

The Edmonton Men's Health Collective has been advocating for access to PrEP for years, founder Brook Biggin said.

The goal of the grassroots health organization is to provide community education and support when it comes to the health and wellbeing of gay, bisexual, transgender and queer men in the city.

Surveys show health-care providers were not always knowledgeable or comfortable prescribing PrEP, Biggin said. But now the cost — one of the biggest barriers — won't be an issue.

He said HIV rates dropped significantly in other areas of the world where PrEP has been made widely available, such as England and Australia.

Eventually he can envision the same decrease in Alberta, Biggin said.

"If PrEP is a part of a comprehensive HIV prevention strategy that also includes treatment as prevention, then I do think we could start seeing significant drops and in the long term we could actually see PrEP being cost-saving for Albertans," he said.

"It's exciting. It's a bold move by the government and it's a smart move that's rooted in science and not stigma."