Almost half of the gay and bisexual Australian men using PrEP have stopped using it during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Kirby Institute.
PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, is a once-daily pill that dramatically reduces the risk of HIV transmission in HIV-negative people.
The study, led by the Institute’s Dr Mohamed A Hammoud and Associate Professor Garrett Prestage, heard from 847 gay and bisexual men during April 2020.
The researchers said their declines in PrEP use can be attributed to COVID-19 physical distancing restrictions.
These restrictions have led to a reduction in sexual encounters and perceived lower risk of HIV infection, they said.
Lead author Dr Hammoud said Australia has seen a steady increase in PrEP use among gay and bisexual men in Australia since 2014.
“The impact of COVID-19 restrictions has dramatically impacted this upward trajectory,” he said.
The researchers are concerned HIV transmissions may increase in the short term if men don’t recommence PrEP if pre-pandemic patterns of sexual activity resume.
“Many men are likely making informed decisions about when to use or not use PrEP,” Dr Hammoud said.
“While this research also shows us that casual sex has decreased since COVID-19, condomless sex with casual partners is still the primary risk for HIV among gay men if it isn’t protected by PrEP or HIV treatments.”
The latest monitoring data is showing PrEP uptake in Australia since COVID-19 has also reduced, the Kirby Institute said.
It’s vital that gay and bi men as restrictions ease
ACON CEO Nicolas Parkhill said gay and bi Aussies were listening to public health orders at the onset of the pandemic. They took responsible steps to protect themselves and each other, as in the past, he said.
However most men who stopped PrEP during COVID-19 had no previous experience of stopping then restarting. Doing so correctly is vital.
ACON CEO Nicolas Parkhill said information and targeted messaging about recommencement of PrEP is critical.
“We urge men in our communities to continue using HIV prevention strategies and to get tested regularly,” Parkhill said.
“With restrictions easing, it’s vital that men resume PrEP in a way that works for them – whether that’s returning to a daily regimen or on-demand.
“If they have questions about these regimens they should talk to their PrEP prescriber.”
Associate Professor Prestage, senior author on the study, is confident gay and bi Aussies will respond to changing health threats, as in the past.
“Gay communities have always come together to find ways to protect themselves and each other,” he said.
“Regardless of the sexual setting, or frequency of sexual contact, HIV prevention strategies need to be accessible.
“[We have] the tools to lessen the health impact, and to reduce the possibilities for renewed infection rates.
“With appropriate resources, gay men will be able to continue to keep HIV infections low.”
The Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes (JAIDS) published the study on Thursday.
Earlier Kirby Institute research found gay and bisexual men in Australia were having much less casual sex during COVID-19.
Sexual contacts in all partnership types – except monogamous relationships – plunged 84 per cent during April, the study found.
Where to find more info on PrEP for HIV prevention
This year, QNews.com.au partnered with the Queensland Council for LGBTI Health for the ComePrEPd campaign.
In it, a diverse group of LGBTIQ Queenslanders shared their stories about accessing and using PrEP.
For more information visit the ComePrEPd website here.
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